Once the first set of books required in any home library, Encyclopedia Britannica has long since been superseded by the internet. But rather extraordinarily there is still a market for it, as Octavia Pollock finds out.
Not for nothing was the Age of Enlightenment so named. The Encyclopaedia Britannica was born 250 years ago this month out of a desire to be enlightened or, in the case of its creator, Colin Macfarquhar, to enlighten others. With engraver Andrew Bell, he formed a Society of Gentlemen to fulfil his grand idea, citing ‘any man of ordinary parts’ as the intended audience for the book’s 40 ‘treatises’ on the Sciences and Arts. The 127 authors included American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin and philosopher John Locke, although editor William Smellie wrote many essays himself.
The first edition was published in 100 parts from 1768 to 1771, bound into three volumes at £12 each. Such was their success, selling 3,000 copies, that a second edition of 10 volumes appeared between 1777 and 1784. The 14 subsequent editions each broke new ground: the seventh was the first to include an index; the 10th to be produced by editors in New York as well as London; the 11th had 1,700 different contributors, and editions after the First World War included celebrity contributors such as Marie Curie (on radium), Leon Trotsky (in Lenin) and Harry Houdini (on conjuring).
What does the future hold for it now, however? The erstwhile legions of notoriously persistent door-to-door salesmen have been put out of work forever by the internet. Britannica itself made the leap to online-only in 2012 but Wikipedia, with its volunteer army, is the new colossus.
Wikipedia, of course, lacks the battery of experts and editors that lends Britannica its authority, but even the original has occasionally been at fault. In the early 1960s a physicist named Harvey Einbinder wrote a book called The Myth of Britannica poking holes in the errors apparent in dozens of the articles; and as recently as 2005 a 12-year-old boy, Lucian George, discovered mistakes concerning Poland in 2005.
The ease of the internet means the average writer or student will seldom scan the silky-smooth leaves of a bound volume, but there is hope: an edition of Britannica is a snapshot in time, full of information (and people) once deemed important but now long-since edited out, and almost forgotten. ‘We still get requests from authors looking for biographical entries,’ says Hester Vickery of John Sandoe Books, citing one example.
Other uses are more academic. ‘A work such as Britannica is valued less as a source of information than as a landmark work in the history of the collection and dissemination of information,’ says Donovan Rees of antiquarian book dealers Bernard Quaritch. ‘Today, editions tend to be bought by collectors.’
Those collectors often have deep pockets: a fine set of the sixth edition was sold by Bernard Quaritch last year for £10,000 and a first edition made $35,000 at Christie’s New York in 2008, far above its estimate. The first, sixth (with six-volume supplement) and 11th editions tend to be the most prized, together with the rare second edition, of which only 1,500 copies were made.
Yet the collectors have a rival for their bids: interior designers. The beauty of leather-bound volumes gives them a new lease of life as wall dressings. ‘Honestly, 99.9% of the encyclopedias I sell are for decoration,’ says Sasha Poklewski-Koziell of Classic Rare Books. With a full set of the 15th edition taking up more than three yards of shelf space, it’s easy to fill an alcove or two.
To all those who feel that this is a crying shame, consider the alternative: that these beautiful old books instead end up in landfill. Considering the great part they’ve played in satisfying humankind’s thirst for knowledge, that seems a poor fate. And there’s always the hope that those bought for decoration end up being used as intended. After all, a handsome volume is a far more congenial companion for a wet Sunday afternoon by the fire than an iPad.
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