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December 06, 2016 Articles

Book Reviews: On the Encyclopaedia Britannica

Two books take on the famous century-old Eleventh Edition.

By Dennis Owens – December 6, 2016

All There Is To Know: Readings from the Illustrious Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

Edited by Alexander Coleman and Charles Simmons

Simon and Schuster


Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition

By Dennis Boyles

Alfred A. Knopf


Let us begin with this: I am not a book collector. Yes, my t-shirt from the Library of Congress recites Thomas Jefferson: “I cannot live without books.” My sweatshirt reads “So Many Books, So Little Time.” When our youngest child moved out of the house, many asked, “Are you going to be downsizing?” The answer was my library of some 16,000 books. Cathy and I gave, over time, in excess of 3,000 volumes to the Rockhurst University’s Greenlease Library in memory of dear friends who were Holocaust survivors. I have given many hundreds of books to seven law school libraries. I am giving hundreds to the faculty libraries at my college alma mater and hundreds to high school libraries. So, why am I not a “book collector”? Because I have never bought a book or set of books as an investment to resell later at a higher price. I do not buy rare books or first editions. 

The one exception was when I came upon a complete set of the famous Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in a used book store. I bought it for the sheer pleasure of reading it. Now, two books take it on.

The Coleman & Simmons book is a set of readings. The readings are written precisely and elegantly. The biographies address facts, rumors, and false claims with deftness and a sure hand in the search for the truth. They are, indeed, a consistent pleasure to read and enjoy, full of significant and intriguing detail. Their range is utterly remarkable. My favorite entry is that of Lord Macaulay on Samuel Johnson. Others will enjoy the articles on Charles Dickens or anti-Semitism. What a wonderful introduction is this book!

The 1,500 contributors included G. K. Chesterton, John Muir, Edmund Husserl, W. M. Rossetti, Bertrand Russell, T. H. Huxley, Algernon Swinburne, and many other writers, scientists, and thinkers. Two hundred were women. The contributors together wrote 44 million words.

* * *

Dennis Boyles’s book is the extremely entertaining story of how the Eleventh Edition came into existence. The last prior edition had very few readers (that is, purchasers). The Times of London was dying. The original proposal was for the two enterprises to combine in producing the best encyclopedia ever, one written by great experts with its 40,000 entries integrated and indexed. The writing would reflect panache, readability, authority, and the highly skilled editing of Hugh Chisholm. Oh, but could everything go wrong on the business end! Boyles tells the story with vivid color. Americans came up with the business plan. Boyles’s book concentrates on this business history. Of course, the scheme ended up in court. Then comes an unexpected resolution. This is highly informative and enjoyable reading.

The Eleventh Edition has its flaws, of course. It reflects the Anglo-American worldview of 1910. The article on “Negroes” is cringe-worthy, in particular.

But, overall, Boyles has given us a very fine work, which we recommend for you—even if you do not own a copy of the Eleventh Edition.

Keywords: litigation, appellate practice, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Dennis Owens is an appellate attorney in Kansas City, Missouri.

Copyright © 2016, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).