Denis Boyles Highlights the Real Life Drama Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica in Everything Explained That Is Explainable

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Denis Boyles Highlights the Real Life Drama Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica in Everything Explained That Is Explainable

Denis Boyle’s Everything Explained That Is Explainable almost reads like fantastic fiction. The book drops you into a time when print publishers possessed the same dynamism as today’s web developers and authors celebrated as much fame as prime time pundits. And while we often romanticize the post-industrial years when the printed word was crucial to civilization’s advancement, Boyles highlights how lucrative publishing could be—despite squabbling between the major players involved.

Chronicling the late 1890s and early 1900s, Boyles’ book tackles the dramatic events leading up to the Encyclopædia Britannica’s Eleventh edition’s release. For children of the ‘80s or ‘90s, it’s crucial to understand the reverence heaped upon this text. It was considered the last of the great scholarly encyclopedias, aspiring to report on “everything” and explain it to a growing population of literate readers. Boasting over 1,500 contributors, including Charles Darwin, the Eleventh edition promised unprecedented access to the foremost scholars of the time.

Boyles’ engaging narrative follows a handful of eccentric individuals responsible for the edition’s publication, revealing the decade-long drama behind the scenes. Paste caught up with Boyles to discuss the book’s colorful cast, the legal battle plaguing the Eleventh edition and people’s reactions his research.


1everythingexplainedcover.jpgPaste: What was it about the people involved in the project—a reporter, a publisher, an ad-man and an editor—that you found most fascinating?

Denis Boyles: They seem like such an unlikely ensemble—a group of people who might have populated a sitcom as easily as a serious publishing project. The Oxford scholar (Hugh Chisholm), the American huckster (H.E. Hooper), the bohemian ad-man (Henry Haxton) and the steady, insightful chorus, played by Janet Hogarth, whose life reads like a map of the Edwardian era and who is, to me, the most endearing.

Paste: You write that literacy at the “turn of the century not only opened minds, but it opened pocketbooks.” The publication game back then seems as wild and unpredictable as certain aspects of our economy today.

Boyles: It’s hard to overestimate the perceived rate of change in the 19th century. “Transition” was the ideology, and the anxiety, of the time. [Vanity Fair author William Makepeace] Thackeray pointed out that he was born [in 1811] into a semi-feudal, candlelit world of horses and carriages that, only 50 years later, featured telegraphs, cameras and locomotives. At the same time, the explosive growth of literacy created a completely new industry—mass entertainment—something we now find extremely familiar.

Paste: What is the biggest takeaway from this heroic publication?

Boyles: It has to be about the way in which a great editor—and Hugh Chisholm was certainly that—could give shape to concepts by couching them in terms of credibility and, especially, authority. The world is full of stuff, and Chisholm’s genius was to be able to sort it all. Unlike Wikipedia, where almost anyone’s views are accepted, or the Internet, where that “almost” is dispensable, the Eleventh edition provided coverage of “everything that is explainable” from a single, cohesive point-of-view, one that reflected the middle-class assumptions and aspirations of its target market.

Paste: Much of your book concerns the across-the-pond collaboration between two Americans, H.E. Hooper and Henry Haxton, and British publishers at The Times and eventually Cambridge University Press. But another American publisher got involved, Walter Jackson, who wanted to carry over articles from the 9th and 10th editions and eventually brought a lawsuit. What can that tell us about the evolving mindset of the early 1900s, regarding the democratization of knowledge?

Boyles: Maybe it tells us something about the commodification of knowledge, which may be a different way of saying the same thing. Hooper and Jackson’s legal quarrel, like most quarrels, was essentially a personal squabble amplified by money. The basis for the dispute was simple: Jackson wanted to make money using the prosaic, sensible methods he thought sound. Hooper wanted to make money by creating a product that reflected a very romantic worldview of an English-speaking planet. Visionaries and speculators don’t always mix well, and the money mattered, of course. According to court documents, by 1908, the Britannica was a global business with as much as $2 million in receivables. Depending on how wealth is measured over time, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars today.

Paste: How did your research for this book compare to previous endeavors?

Boyles: It seemed so simple: write a book about a famous encyclopedia. But I quickly found I had opened a 55-gallon drum of worms, media, education, literature and a cast of characters who are distinctly modern. My previous books have fallen into two general categories—travel-history and humor-essays. Where previous books had taken a year or so at most, this one took the entire childhoods of my three amazing daughters.

Paste: When you would tell people what you were working on, what were some memorable reactions?

Boyles: I found two common reactions: one, the glassy-eyed, faraway stare of the somnambulist; the other, an excited recognition of a shared enthusiasm. I found that people who knew about the Eleventh edition were passionately attached to the thing by years of comfortable familiarity. It was something they grew up with—the starting point for every line of enquiry and the source of for-sure information. The massive Eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica struck me as an overlooked “book”, one I had always admired. I only wish the Eleventh, with its 40,000 entries, had included one on itself.

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