Books

'Everything Explained That Is Explainable' Contains the Intrigue of a Thriller

This is the story of not only the modern accumulation and dispensing of knowledge, but also of early marketing and public manipulation through the impressive power of persuasion.


Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 464 pages
Author: Denis Boyles
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-06

Given the modern ease of accessibility to so much information that is available electronically, the idea of compiling all known information into book form seems antiquated. That it was, for hundreds of years, the sole source of information proves all the more mind-boggling given the speed at which answers to even the most trivial questions can be obtained with a few key strokes -- for those of us with keyboards and internet access, anyway. Furthermore, the idea that any updates to the established text could take decades to correct and that subsequent editions would then require additional monetary resources to acquire plays out as something of an absurdist exercise in futility. Let alone the fact that, given the rapidity with which the modern age unfolded at the turn of the 20th century, very nearly anything set in print one day could well be obsolete the next.

Yet for generations antiquated knowledge was acquired by thumbing through the increasingly dog-eared pages of bulky sets of encyclopedias. The biggest name in encyclopedias and that which purported to be the keepers of all the world’s knowledge, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, went through numerous iterations and updates all the way through the Industrial Age and into the modern era. Yet as modernity’s progress continued to speed up, the time between editions just as quickly compressed to a level of pre-publication obsolescence. Because of this, editors had to find a way to begin unloading their outdated inventory in order to make way for the next round of informational updates.

At its heart, Everything Explained That Is Explainable is the story of not only the modern accumulation and dispensing of knowledge, but also one of early marketing, PR and public manipulation through the impressive power of persuasion. Imagine the task of attempting to sell a set of books costing more than most would make in a year and full of increasingly irrelevant information. Such a task would require masterful persuasiveness -- the old (and politically incorrect) adage of being able to "sell snow to an Eskimo" -- and a complete disregard for the potential financial hardships being foisted upon the unsuspecting buyers.

Meticulously researched and laboriously plotted out, Denis Boyles’ narrative of the creation of the famed 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is nearly as exhausting as the original process of acquiring the vast informational overhaul necessary to create what has become the modern benchmark for encyclopedic knowledge -- albeit one very much a product of its Edwardian time. Running through an ever increasing cast of colorful characters and backroom dealings among the journalists vying for control over the flow of information, Everything Explained That Is Explainable carries with it all the improbable intrigue of a thriller.

Unfortunately, it takes Boyles some time to get the ball rolling, spending much of the book’s first half establishing the context within which the 11th edition came into being. It’s a rather convoluted cooption of British and American talents seen as a bridging of the post-Revolutionary War gap between the two nations. With each rising to the level of super power, their comingling of resources and knowledge to create the one book to overrule them all becomes more politically motivated than the publication of any general informational repository has the right to be.

Given the significance of the trans-Atlantic pairing and the players involved, the story itself becomes rather fascinating, if a little overly detail-oriented. Yet anyone with an interest in the establishment of an encyclopedia, let alone a specific edition, will be amenable to such narrative minutiae to begin within. From the involvement of the famed Times of London to the Chicago publishers of bootleg novels and encyclopedias who helped prop up the flagging institution and its wealth of knowledge, Everything Explained That Is Explainable runs the gamut of characters, ideological and cultural differences, clashes between the old and new and enough ephemeral trivia to make the most ardent bibliophiles salivate.

Some might find their eyes glazing over as Boyles piles on layer after layer his expository, erudite prose. While not without its fair share of humor -- the first several chapters are stylized as encyclopedia entries and, though quickly abandoned in favor of a more traditional narrative structure, they set the tone for the remainder of the work -- Everything Explained That Is Explainable tends to drag during the extended passages within which Boyles extolls the virtues of those involved with the publication, marketing and selling of the 11th edition. His fascination with wordsmith and early marketing genius Henry Haxton helps sell these slower passages, the latter’s hectoring copy becoming increasingly unhinged with regard to the general public’s abject need for the encyclopedia set.

These more in-depth sections tend to play out as biographies in miniature, again keeping with the encyclopedic theme established in the books opening chapters. While they certainly aid in the contextualization of the times and those involved, they tend to drag the narrative as it struggles to maintain its linearity, jumping back in forth in time to fill in gaps and details as each new player is introduced. By the end, there are so many ancillary characters milling about that the reader requires an index just to keep tabs on who is who and what is what. Yet given the relatively breezy nature of Boyles’ writing style, the requisite flipping back and forth in order to keep up aids in the stylistic and thematic comparison to the book’s subject matter.

As all of the moving pieces set in motion within the book’s first half gradually begin settling into place, however, the story begins to pick up the pace, freed from the expository baggage required to set the scene. By this time, however, the reader is so enmeshed in the story itself that anything short of a less-than-satisfactory payoff would leave them feeling cheated. Fortunately, Boyles largely fulfills the promise of a satisfying conclusion, making clear in the process the influence this particular collection of information had on laying the groundwork for our modern information-obsessed society. That we still pull -- at least in terms of modern notions of “explainability” and “truth” -- from this particular edition further cements the significance of its compilation and publication over a century ago.

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