I’m rather fond of my 1956 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (EB), even though as years roll by it’s rarely consulted. Who needs all these volumes when Wikipedia is at your fingertips? One reason why I wouldn’t let go of the 26 shelf filling volumes (apart from the fact that they just look good) is that back in 1956, when I was only three, they were testament to my parents’ faith in the possibility that I and my brothers might actually learn something. We weren’t well off at the time, so buying these weighty volumes would have put pressure on the family budget. But an old EB has other attractions. It is a capture of the world as it was then, a looking glass into a bygone history, frozen in time. I once owned a 1933 edition (bought in a library sale for £10, missing the volume for everything beginning with N) which related, in a single paragraph that a certain Adolf Hitler was merely a provincial Austrian politician. Encyclopedias aren’t about hindsight or foresight, they’re just a snapshot of knowledge at the time. I imagine that ‘periods of time’ were sufficiently long lasting for articles to remain reasonably accurate for several years. So 10 years after our edition was published I could still dip into it to burnish my homework with suitably apposite references.
Now of course Wikipedia, which grows exponentially both temporally and expansively is updated by the minute, and is not necessarily edited by respected academics but by the subjects of its articles themselves. Only today Guardian readers learnt that a team working for billionaire Richard Desmond routinely edit his Wiki page to exchange the word ‘pornographer’ for ‘philanthropist.’ (I confess I forgot this unpleasant man’s first name so googled ‘Desmond porn’ and sure enough his name came up.)
Some things go on for ever of course, and the 1956 EB edition is dedicated ‘with thanks’ not only to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II but to Dwight Eisenhower, President of the United States. The first volume’s first two hundred pages or so simply list all the contributors. But what’s in the meat of it? Volume One covers “A to Annoy.” That sounds very contemporary to me. ‘Annoy’ —what’s EB got to say about this most descriptive word, which captures so well our experience of modern society? It says this:
“ANNOY, to vex, in the sense of “nuisance” (q.v.) “annoyance” is found in the English “Jury of Annoyance” appointed by an act of 1754 to report on obstructions to the highways.”
Jury of Annoyance! Bring ‘em back! Every town should have a Jury of Annoyance, even if the workload would be rather overwhelming. The little ‘q.v.’ in that article reminded me of a game one could play in the EB—that is, to follow up every q.v. through every other article referenced to see if that one day one would have to read every single article in the EB. Of course, such a task would take rather a long time to accomplish, just like my thought that if one read every word that defined every word in the Oxford English Dictionary, one would find that in the grand scheme of things every word would simply define every other word. Perhaps there’s a look in here for Wittgenstein (not a name to be found between Wittenberg and Witu of EB 1956, volume 23).
So—even an old EB can teach you something. I want to get my local Jury of Annoyance set up straightaway.