Encyclopaedia Britannica – The Scholar’s Edition

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (I will call it EB from this point for brevity’s sake) is synonymous enough with the word ‘encyclopedia’ that when one is able to call it simply ‘Britannica’, with the first word of the name implied. Since it’s first appearance in the mid-18th century, it has risen to a stature enjoyed by few reference works (possibly only two others, Webster’s Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, could be called its equals). This was likely due to the pioneering decision to arrange its entries by subject, something previous works had not done. It was a sad day, then, when it was announced just last year that no further print versions of the work were to be released, making the 2010 fifteenth edition the last – remaining copies of this set sold out about a month after the announcement. Current and subsequent editions will now be available in digital form only by payment of a subscription fee.

While many of us are familiar with the EB as it is today, its size and format were not always such. In fact, it has changed drastically since its birth. During its evolution, EB grew from a modest three volumes to an imposing thirty-two, the bulk of this growth occurring during the first 60 years of its life (the sixth edition of 1826 was 20 volumes). It is also interesting to note that, though each successive edition was still dubbed the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the editorship and authorship changed significantly throughout its history, and many editions did not resemble previous or subsequent editions, except in general structure. Surprisingly, a separate general index was not added until the release of the seventh edition. This of course made locating specific articles much quicker.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Scholar’s Edition

Two editions of the EB still stand out as prominent examples. The ninth edition, still referred to as The Scholar’s Edition, is considered the pinnacle of the EB’s career as a scholarly work. The articles were meticulously researched, and some are the length of short books, many quite beautifully written by well-known intellectuals of the day (e.g., Robert Louis Stevenson, John Muir, Algernon Swinburne, etc.). As a result, this edition is not only useful as a reference, but can be read continuously (and enjoyably) as one would a magazine or a work of nonfiction. The same can be said of the eleventh edition, which was the last edition for which all article submissions came from experts in their fields.

Little has been done in our time to promote the importance, and highlight the material differences, of the various editions of the EB. Those who dismiss its contents as outdated or compare its accessibility negatively to a Google search are missing a rather large point. It used to be that, when faced with a question, we referred to information compiled by the brightest minds available, whose contributions were edited by judicious men who took pride in their work. The wild frontier that is the internet, on the other hand, seems to be ruled by those who can shout the loudest.

The EB, and other works similar to it, have displayed the arc of human thought over an extremely important period in the history of mankind, encompassing the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the birth of globalization, and much more. While I certainly understand (though sometimes reluctantly) that not everyone has within them the desire to preserve our collective intellectual heritage, I still personally believe it to be eminently worthwhile, especially in such obvious incarnations as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Books as Self-Education

I have always believed in the ability of books to be among our best teachers. Many of the fundamental principles that have guided my intellectual development were obtained not from family, not from school, but from the pages of a favorite book. I certainly do not want to diminish other forms of education at all, as they are certainly useful in many ways; I do, though, want to discuss the power of books as tools for the autodidact (i.e., ‘self-teacher’), with special reference to The Harvard Classics as a prime example of this power.

First of all, the use of books as self-teaching tools implicitly involves literacy, which has been demonstrated to be an indispensable skill in the development of the individual, and in successful interaction with other members of the community. It is no coincidence that ‘community’ and ‘communicate’ have the same root; language is what connects us, and allows us to discuss ideas with one another.

Verbal communication is acquired first, because it is used most frequently, generally for simple or current concerns (e.g., ‘please pass the butter’; ‘Help, I hurt my ankle’; etc.). Written communication comes later, and – at least traditionally – is more formalized, allowing communication about more complex topics (e.g., the nature of the human soul), and also about communication itself (e.g., dictionaries; philosophical essays). Where verbal communication focuses on immediacy, writing – again, traditionally – concentrates on exactitude.

In today’s world, it is easy to identify those who read regularly, because their style of verbal communication tends to sound similar to written communication. It is also easy to spot those who do not read at all, because their writing very much resembles speech. A more recent phenomenon is the resemblance of speech to the telegraphic style of text messages, which is a distressing trend, but one I will not elaborate on here.

Back to reading as education. What makes reading particularly suited to imparting knowledge to the reader, and how is it more effective than, for instance, just talking with others? I have my own theory, which relates to the distinction drawn earlier: written communication, by its very nature and construction, is designed to teach concepts (as distinct from verbal communication, which seems best suited to furthering awareness of immediate surroundings or situation – e.g. “Watch out for that car!”).

I believe there are several reasons for this. First, our minds are placed in a specific context when reading. The world is shut out, and I commit myself fully to interacting with the text. My mind tells itself, “It is time to focus on doing this one thing,” and as a result is ready to receive information in a complex form. Second, the very fact that the text itself was printed in the first place- again, traditionally – implies several things: that the writer considered the message worth spreading; that the writer, knowing he/she intended to transmit ideas to many other people, was invested of a certain level of responsibility related to what was said, and how it was said. In other words, if we went to the trouble of putting pen to paper, the ideas are worth considering. Third, the very form of the information itself causes us to use a part of our brain that is functioning at a more conceptual level. This ties in with the context mentioned earlier. My mind understands the difference between thinking about the idea of freedom, and seeing an example of freedom. In the same way, it is in a different mode when it ponders what it means to be free, than when it makes my mouth say, “I’m free!”.

Now, up to this point, this has all been very technical and theoretical. Time for a concrete example, I think:

In the early twentieth century Charles W. Eliot, the Dean of Harvard University, claimed that a decent education could be had by reading for fifteen minutes a day from a five foot shelf of books. In other words, we can teach ourselves most of the concepts we need simply by reading books. P.F. Collier, a prominent publisher at the time, seized on this idea, and requested from Eliot a list of works that he would place on this bookshelf, and upon receiving it published a uniformly bound set of these works, known as The Harvard Classics. Ever since, it has been recognized as a monument to the world’s great works of literature and history, and has been eagerly collected since it was first published in 1909.

The first set included 50 volumes. Subsequent reprints have included the original material along with supplementary volumes, so some sets have as many as 54 volumes. Material ranges from poetry to politics, memoirs to monographs, science to fable, all carefully chosen to provide a well-rounded collection. Below is a complete list of the works included. It is likely you will recognize many of them, while others will seem foreign. While Eliot likely did not envision that his selections would be used to teach us something about the state of academic and intellectual life in 1909, they do this too, by showing us what thoughts survive the onslaught of time, the changes in ideals, and the inevitable march of progress.

And this brings me to perhaps one of the most important distinctions I will make about reading, which is that every written work implicitly includes its own historical context. Every piece of literature, every historical treatise, every philosophical theory, is firmly placed in a very specific slot within the larger chronology of the printed word. Its production was informed by this placement, the nature of its production relates to this placement, and the content of it speaks always from this placement. Unlike any verbal utterance, printed works occupy a place in history. They are historical objects. Even verbal statements recorded for posterity maintain their authority because they were immortalized in ink.

The ability of books to teach may draw some of its power from this phenomenon. Those who understand the historical implications of the simple existence of a particular book are immediately struck with a sense of wonder when in its presence. To think that we are, effectively, drinking history into ourselves with our eyes and our minds when we read, inspires awe, and keeps us coming back for more. Those who truly commit themselves to exploring the vast world that books offer will find that the sea of information is unending, that there will always be more to learn, and that reading floats us from one ocean to the next.

The Harvard Classics, in Fifty Volumes


Vol. 1: FRANKLIN, WOOLMAN, PENN: His Autobiography, by Benjamin Franklin; Journal, by John Woolman; Fruits of Solitude, by William Penn

Vol. 2. PLATO, EPICTETUS, MARCUS AURELIUS: The Apology, Phaedo and Crito, by Plato; The Golden Sayings, by Epictetus; The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Vol. 3. BACON, MILTON’S PROSE, THOS. BROWNE: Essays, Civil and Moral & The New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon; Areopagitica & Tractate of Education, by John Milton; Religio Medici, by Sir Thomas Browne

Vol. 4. COMPLETE POEMS IN ENGLISH, MILTON: Complete Poems Written in English, by John Milton

Vol. 5. ESSAYS AND ENGLISH TRAITS, EMERSON: Essays and English Traits, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Vol. 6. POEMS AND SONGS, BURNS: Poems and Songs, by Robert Burns

Vol. 7. CONFESSIONS OF ST. AUGUSTINE, IMITATIONS OF CHRIST: The Confessions of St. Augustine; The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis

Vol. 8. NINE GREEK DRAMAS: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Furies & Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus; Oedipus the King & Antigone, by Sophocles; Hippolytus, The Bacchae, by Euripides; The Frogs, by Aristophanes

Vol. 9. LETTERS AND TREATISES OF CICERO AND PLINY: On Friendship, On Old Age & Letters, by Cicero; Letters, by Pliny the Younger

Vol. 10. WEALTH OF NATIONS, ADAM SMITH: Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith

Vol. 11. ORIGIN OF SPECIES, DARWIN: The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin

Vol. 12. PLUTARCH’S LIVES: Lives, by Plutarch

Vol. 13. AENEID, VIRGIL: Aeneid, by Virgil

Vol. 14. DON QUIXOTE, Part 1, CERVANTES: Don Quixote, Part 1, by Cervantes

Vol. 15. PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, DONNE & HERBERT, BUNYAN, WALTON: The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan; The Lives of Donne and Herbert, by Izaak Walton

Vol. 16. THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS: Stories from the Thousand and One Nights

Vol. 17. FOLKLORE AND FABLE, AESOP, GRIMM, ANDERSON: Fables, by Aesop; Household Tales, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm; Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen

Vol. 18. MODERN ENGLISH DRAMA: All for Love, by John Dryden; The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan; She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith; The Cenci, by Percy Bysshe Shelley; A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon, by Robert Browning; Manfred, by Lord Byron

Vol. 19. FAUST, EGMONT, ETC. DOCTOR FAUSTUS, GOETHE, MARLOWE: Faust, Part I, Egmont & Hermann and Dorothea, by J.W. von Goethe; Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe

Vol. 20. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE: The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri

Vol. 21. I PROMESSI SPOSI: I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni

Vol. 22. THE ODYSSEY, HOMER: The Odyssey of Homer

Vol. 23. TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST, DANA: Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Vol. 24. ON THE SUBLIME, FRENCH REVOLUTION, ETC., BURKE: On Taste, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Reflections on the French Revolution & A Letter to a Noble Lord, by Edmund Burke

Vol. 25. AUTOBIOGRAPHY, ETC., ESSAYS AND ADDRESSES, J.S. MILL, T. CARLYLE: Autobiography & On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill; Characteristics, Inaugural Address at Edinburgh & Sir Walter Scott, by Thomas Carlyle

Vol. 26. CONTINENTAL DRAMA: Life Is a Dream, by Pedro Calderon de la Barca; Polyeucte, by Pierre Corneille; Phèdre, by Jean Racine; Tartuffe, by Molière; Minna von Barnhelm, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing; Wilhelm Tell, by Friedrich von Schiller



Vol. 29. VOYAGE OF THE BEAGLE, DARWIN: The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin

Vol. 30. FARADAY, HELMHOLTZ, KELVIN, NEWCOMB, ETC; Scientific Papers: Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Geology

Vol. 31. AUTOBIOGRAPHY, BENVENUTO CELLINI: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

Vol. 32. LITERARY AND PHILOSOPHICAL ESSAYS: Montaigne, Sainte-beuve, Renan, etc.

Vol. 33. VOYAGES AND TRAVELS: Voyages and Travels: Ancient and Modern

Vol. 34. FRENCH AND ENGLISH PHILOSOPHERS, DESCARTES, VOLTAIRE, ROUSSEAU, HOBBES: Discourse on Method, by Rene Descartes; Letters on the English, by Voltaire; On the Inequality among Mankind & Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, by Jean Jacques Rousseau; Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

Vol. 35. CHRONICLE AND ROMANCE, FROISSART, MALORY, HOLINSHEAD: Chronicles, by Jean Froissart; The Holy Grail, by Sir Thomas Malory; A Description of Elizabethan England, by William Harrison

Vol. 36. MACHIAVELLI, MORE, LUTHER: The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli; The Life of Sir Thomas More, by William Roper; Utopia, by Sir Thomas More; The Ninety-Five Theses, Address to the Christian Nobility & Concerning Christian Liberty, by Martin Luther

Vol. 37. LOCKE, BERKELY, HUME: Some Thoughts Concerning Education, by John Locke; Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists, by George Berkeley; An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by David Hume

Vol. 38. HARVEY, JENNER, LISTER, PASTEUR: The Oath of Hippocrates; Journeys in Diverse Places, by Ambroise Pare; On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, by William Harvey; The Three Original Publications on Vaccination Against Smallpox, by Edward Jenner; The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever, by Oliver Wendell Holmes; On the Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery, by Joseph Lister; Scientific Papers, by Louis Pasteur; Scientific Papers, by Charles Lyell

Vol. 39. FAMOUS PREFACES: Prefaces and Prologues




Vol. 43. AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS: American Historical Documents: 1000-1904

Vol. 44. SACRED WRITINGS 1: Confucian: The Sayings of Confucius; Hebrew: Job, Psalms & Ecclesiastes; Christian I: Luke & Acts

Vol. 45. SACRED WRITINGS 2: Christian II: Corinthians I & II & Hymns; Buddhist: Writings; Hindu: The Bhagavad-Gita; Mohammedan: Chapters from the Koran

Vol. 46. ELIZABETHAN DRAMA 1: Edward the Second, by Christopher Marlowe; Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth & The Tempest, by William Shakespeare

Vol. 47. ELIZABETHAN DRAMA 2: The Shoemaker’s Holiday, by Thomas Dekker; The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson; Philaster, by Beaumont and Fletcher; The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster; A New Way to Pay Old Debts, by Philip Massinger

Vol. 48. THOUGHTS AND MINOR WORKS, PASCAL: Thoughts, Letters & Minor Works, by Blaise Pascal

Vol. 49. EPIC AND SAGA: Beowulf; The Song of Roland; The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel; The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs

Vol. 50 INTRODUCTION, READER’S GUIDE, INDEXES; LECTURES: The last volume contains 60 lectures introducing and summarizing the covered fields: history, poetry, natural science, philosophy, biography, prose fiction, criticism and the essay, education, political science, drama, voyages and travel, and religion.


Jonathan Smalter, Bookseller
President, Yesterday’s Muse Books
Vice President, IOBA
Sellers of fine books in all categories, with specialties in:
Castles & Military Fortifications; Dystopian Literature
32 W Main St Ste 1
Webster, NY 14580
Phone: (585) 265-9295

Published in: on July 6, 2013 at 10:24 AM  Leave a Comment  
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More Than You Can Chew

NOTE: This post was originally written in June of 2012.

Well, with the exception of attending the Buffalo Niagara International Antiquarian Book Fair with several dozen other dealers, I spent the month of May furiously working through the collection in my last blog post.

The result? I would be more than halfway done, but the consignor has added even more!

It got me thinking about the challenges we face in life, and how we approach them.

In this instance, my strategy was to divide and conquer – watch for the release of Part I of the collection as an e-list very soon. Looking at the scope of the collection, how much more work it will entail, and the fact that it won’t generate income for me until I start making it available for sale, this decision to release it in parts was essential.

Trying to offer it as one piece would be like drinking the ocean so I would never be thirsty again – not only am I incapable of doing it, even if I were, it just wouldn’t work. Better to take small gulps.

Now that got me thinking about the way we, as individuals, process information, and how that fits in with the way things are laid out these days. We live in the information age, so things should be pretty good, right?

Well, maybe not. It turns out that, though we are surrounded by information that is readily accessible, it is still very much an ocean. As individuals, we need this ocean split up into small, manageable chunks. We can’t digest a whole ocean at once. Now, you will probably say, “That’s what a search engine is for – it drills down to get what you need.”

Let’s say, for this discussion’s sake, that that’s true (though I would probably have some arguments counter to that belief). In order to use a search engine to get to that manageable chunk of information, I need to already have some information. I need to have a question, and I need to translate that question into a group of words that a search engine will understand.

If I am looking for a recipe for cheesecake, or directions to a local movie theater, that’s fairly straightforward. Even more complex questions are pretty easily answered (e.g., What caused World War I?; What is existentialism?).

I see two problems here. First, these answers aren’t gulps of information; they’re droplets. There’s a whole world in between the ocean and the droplets, and I want to be able to get at it. Second, what happens if I don’t know the information I need to get at an answer. Put a different way: What if I don’t know that I don’t know something?

Let’s start with the first problem – simple searches don’t get us to manageable chunks of complex information. It turns out, that’s something that computers and the internet still just aren’t that great at. If you do manage to find a well-researched, capably-written response that goes deeper than a trivia-show-length Q&A, you’ve probably located either an online article, or an excerpt from a book.

Which brings me to problem two: what if I can’t find that article, or that excerpt, because I can’t generate the magic sequence of keywords to bring it up as a search result? Or what if I am ignorant of my own ignorance, and never do a search in the first place? I am a better search engine user than many, in my opinion, but I often give up when I am unable to quickly generate useful results. And I’m fairly sure an internet search for ‘What don’t I know?’ would be vague enough that we’d just end up with the ocean again.

So what does this mean? It means that we are faced with an unlimited amount of knowledge, to which our access is limited based on how much we already know. What’s worse, the way search engines work is designed around what you’ve already done, what you’ve already searched, but in a way that returns sameness, that repeats your previous experience, not in a way that adapts to show you new things.

Instead of playing the role of teacher, the internet as viewed through a search engine is the consummate yes man. It will lead you to pages that affirm what you already think, sell what you’ve already bought, and encourage what you already do.

So what is the alternative? My answer: Read books. Now, you might say, “Certainly there are books that do the same thing.” And you’d be right.

My new answer: Read old books. Ones that have stood the test of time. Read works by authors whose names we still remember, though they lived decades or centuries ago. Read Dickens. Hugo. Tolstoy. Read Plutarch. Marcus Aurelius. Plato. Darwin. Rousseau. Dostoevsky.

And when you read them, don’t look for answers to specific questions. Learn. You’ll realize the questions they’ve answered were ones you hadn’t thought to ask yet. And eventually you’ll realize that, though you came to the ocean hoping to understand a few things and move along, now…. now you can swim.

Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 11:40 AM  Leave a Comment  
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