BY Jing Tsu
All the Knowledge in the World: The Extraordinary History of the Encyclopedia
Author: Simon Garfield
Publisher: William Morrow
According to Denis Diderot, perhaps the most famous encyclopaedist of the 18th century, the goal of an encyclopaedia is “to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth.” More than 270 years later, the size of that task grows still, as new knowledge continues to be created. In All the Knowledge in the World, Simon Garfield offers a delightful curated sampling of what seekers before and after Diderot have tried to actualise.
In a nod to the usual organisation of its print subject, the book’s content — a playful history of the genre — is arranged in alphabetical order (“Backstory,” “Chalcenterocity,” “Damask Silk,” etc.). From Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia in the first century AD to Wikipedia in this one, the desire to gather, organise and link human knowledge has, by Garfield’s count, long mirrored a drive for a complete omniscience. For centuries, encyclopaedias have empowered aspiring savants.
Historically, encyclopaedias have been thick tomes for a reason: They are made to encompass all knowledge, leaving nothing to guesswork. But not all apparent factoids have been invested with enlightened insight or accuracy. The best the first volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1768, could do with “woman” was: “The female of man. See Homo.” Still, fledgling entries performed an important function: They bookmarked a train of thought to be continued, a placeholder for other knowledge builders to fill in. The most important service encyclopaedias provide is establishing an infrastructure for expanding on what we know, tentative dirt roads that eventually connect to superhighways.
Augmented by technological innovations like the printing press and the internet, collecting knowledge has not always been a harmlessly nerdy pursuit. Such compendiums, Garfield reminds us, at times extended the reach of colonial conquest with a bookish arm. To be cited in an encyclopaedia is to submit to a certain worldview. You might say that our current dependence on AI-powered search engines requires a similar submission to the biases and assumptions of those who write the algorithms that determine how information is generated and presented.
No one now remembers what was in the pages of the lavishly printed 18th-century German Grosses Vollständiges Universal-Lexicon Aller Wissenschafften und Künste or other once famous comparable works. By necessity, encyclopaedias had to stay current in order to be of use. Repeated edits, corrections and elaborations overtook the old and ushered in the new. Advances in knowledge and rivalries among authors meant that no edition acquired lasting sway until the Encyclopaedia Britannica — Garfield’s de facto protagonist. The brainchild of William Smellie, a recovering alcoholic and polymath Presbyterian; Colin Macfarquhar, a printer; and Andrew Bell, an engraver endowed with a famously large nose, it became the gold standard. “Perhaps it was inevitable that a man with an enormous nose would engage a man with such a surname,” Garfield writes with characteristic humour in reference to Bell and Smellie.
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With few exceptions, the history of the encyclopaedia depends on the alphabet for organising its content. So much so that although Garfield includes the Great Compendium of the Yongle Reign — a colossal medieval Chinese encyclopaedia that reputedly stacked 820 feet tall — he does not mention its departure from the norm. The topics in the Great Compendium were grouped according to a two-tiered classification based on the sound and rhyme of their first written Chinese character. The Chinese used their distinctive writing system to capture their knowledge universe. Like the Great Compendium, glossaries and dictionaries were organised by character-led subject divisions that reflected an orderly world set to moral imperatives.
Chinese and Western ways of systematising troves of knowledge did not meet until the Dewey Decimal System was introduced into China in 1910. The Chinese librarian who helped promote it in the 1920s and 1930s worried that when the day came for the East and the West to deepen their mutual understanding for lasting peace, they might not be able to locate each other’s books on the same bookshelf.
In both traditions, new knowledge added bulk. Inclusion meant individual volumes grew into sets of books. The encyclopaedia’s growing size eventually imperilled its claim to make information easy to access and use — until the age of Wikipedia, when the infinitely expandable space of the internet made it at least technically feasible to accommodate the deluge of data coming from all sides and at all times.
In the 21st century, as the digital medium erodes that of print, knowledge access highlights a different priority. The idea of encompassing all information persists, but now the process prioritises speed over slow accumulation. (Think of the origin of “wiki” — Hawaiian for “quick” — in Wikipedia.) Instant recall is no longer a matter of prestige when it is easier to upload information to the cloud than to commit it to memory.
Garfield’s deep dive into encyclopaedia-making would merely involve summarising scholars’ studies on the subject, which he acknowledges often and with reverence, if it did not also spotlight some of the wonderful, eccentric personalities that animate this history. However bookish knowledge can be, Garfield counters this tendency with a light and personable touch.
The reviewer is a professor of Chinese studies and comparative literature at Yale