Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Traces in time


I mentioned yesterday that we have the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1911, with three supplementary volumes appearing in the early 1920s. It’s been in our family now for close on a hundred years, bought by my great-great-grandfather just before the First World War.

It’s so intriguing, not at all like the modern day Britannica, which consists mostly of dictionary-length entries, hors d'oeuvres that never satisfy the appetite. The eleventh in contrast has lengthy articles, often by the leading experts of the day. Where else, I wonder, could one find a collection that contains submissions by people as diverse as Leon Trotsky and Harry Houdini?

I spent hours dipping into it in the past, following trails, dreaming in the company of serendipity. Clearly a lot of the information is obsolete, superseded by later scholarship, but its real value is that it has, in itself, become a fascinating historical document, reflecting many of the preoccupations and concerns of the day. Things that occupied a significant place in Edwardian consciousness have now diminished to mere footnotes in history. I’m thinking specifically here of the 1897 war between Greece and Turkey, to which several pages are devoted.

It’s the old pull-out maps that I love most, maps that reflect the political geography of the day. There is a wonderful one of Europe before the Balkan Wars, with the Ottoman Empire still stretching from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. The Germany Empire stands proud in the centre of the Continent, France seemingly deprived of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine forever. To the south is the land of the Habsburgs. Look to the east: there is the Empire of the Tsars; there is no Poland, no Finland and no Baltic States. It truly is like coming across the outlines of a vanished civilization, the highways where people went and can never come again.

17 comments:

  1. "The past is another country . . . "

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  2. I have an Encyclopedia Americana of Eisenhower vintage, with supplemental volumes containing articles on Sputnik, Suez, etc.

    I very much enjoy old science books, and old volumes on exploration, as well as memoirs. I've yet to meet anyone who has a passion for books of ancient sermons, but I am sure there must be some.

    Google has scanned a lot of 19th century volumes that will pop up unexpectedly if one searches for things like origins of place-names, etc. There one can find tales of skirmishes between travellers and indigenes in exotic locations, or descriptions of rituals and ceremonies, lists of trade goods and so forth. It is striking just how different and individual the way of thinking was such a short time ago.

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  3. I have encyclopedias but not the british one, Borges said that he knew a lot because he read it all the british encyclopedias very well, i have 20 volumes but i read a few of the all content, i think I am a little lazy to read from the start to the finish like Borges, i only read it what I need it in answer of my own questions, i like geography, i understand your emotion with the maps, now you have Discovery Chanell and similar to learn in easy way, tough a book is abook always. Mario.

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  4. Absolutely, Calvin. Father has a lot of antique volumes in his library (I think there may even be some sermons!), interesting less for the information they uncover than the attitudes they reveal. I came across a late nineteenth century ‘manual’ for newly weds which says, among other things, that a lady is not expected to enjoy sex, or if she does she is not quite the lady! I also love the old spidery inscriptions, names and dedications, some of them going back two hundred years, really rather poignant.

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  5. Mario, perhaps we are all reading El libro de arena. :-)

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  6. I have a cheap 'encyclopedic dictionary', which was bought by my grandmother many decades ago, at home. It was published in the early 1960s. It has never been a great source of information and today it is heavily outdated... but as you point out with your 1911 edition of Britannica, now that it is outdated it has become much more interesting than ever. I like reading the data it provides about population, literacy and life expectancy rates, GDP... there are some surprises - I love encountering one of those - but the 'not-so-different' rule generally applies :)

    This post has aroused my interest in the 1911 edition of the Britannica. Do you know if it is possible to read it for free online? A quick Google query yielded a website called "1911encyclopedia" dot org, which is, according to the site owners, based on 1911 Britannica, but I'm not sure whether that's the real deal.

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  7. They have encyclopedias on DVD now, they take up alot less space.

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  8. Duot, I don't know. I would have to check some of the articles and compare them with the original, which is in my London home! I'll let you know as soon as I have more information.

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  9. Anthony, much less exciting, though, especially the maps.

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  10. I'm intrigued by the CD in your photograph, on the books in the lower shelf. A back-up copy?
    :-)

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  11. Duot, please keep your eye on this. I'll post a response after the weekend.

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  12. Duot, it's the real deal alright. Go to the Wikipedia page and scroll down en.wikipedia.org/.../Encyclopædia_Britannica_Eleventh_Edition

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