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The Book of Books

The Columbia Encyclopaedia: Fifth Edition

edited by Barbara A. Chernow, edited by George A. Vallasi
Columbia University Press/distributed by Houghton Mifflin,, 3,048 pp., $125.00

We live in a contentious world, but one thing we can all agree on is the general excellence of the Columbia Encyclopaedia. Since the first edition appeared in 1935, the Encyclopaedia has established itself as the leading work of its kind, certainly the leading work in the English language, and as someone who uses it regularly I am happy to join the chorus and testify to its virtues. It is accessible, sensibly organized, and handsomely produced; its articles are succinct and clearly written; within the compass of a single manageable volume it succeeds in purveying an extraordinary amount of information about an extraordinary range of topics.

The fourth edition of the Encyclopaedia was published in 1975, to enormous praise. The new edition, while similar in format, and roughly the same in size, represents in content a major overhaul. Not only are there a great many new entries; around 60 percent of existing articles, we are told, have been revised.

The most immediately obvious changes are political, and the most striking impression they leave is of how much the world has lived through in less than twenty years. There were no entries in the fourth edition for many figures—Jimmy Carter, for example, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev George Bush—who have not only come to the fore since then but have more or less receded into history. Again, who in the wildest dreams of 1975 could have predicted that by 1993 there would be a series of entries reading: “Leninabad: see KHUDZHAND, Tajikistan,” “Leninakan: see GIUMRI, Armenia,” “Leningrad: see SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia”? (Leninogorsk, in Kazakhstan, lingers on—at least it did at the time the fifth edition went to press.) And though the convulsions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are responsible for the largest single group of changes in the Encyclopaedia, numerous other innovations bear witness to the press of events elsewhere. There are now entries for Jacques Delors and Nelson Mandela, for the Iran-contra affair and Tiananmen Square. Given that the official closing date for new material was November 1, 1992, the editors have also done remarkably well in taking note, however briefly, of the Clinton presidency. They have even managed to slip in a last-minute entry for Janet Reno (though not, curiously, for Warren Christopher).

The attempt to keep pace with social and cultural developments has been equally determined. All kinds of people have gained admission for the first time: Michel Foucault, Malcolm Forbes, Ronald Dworkin, Dolly Parton, Joseph Brodsky, Magic Johnson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ted Turner, Sally Ride, Laura Ashley—the list, as they say, could go on. There are also articles on any number of new topics, from AIDS to chaos theory, from rap music to genetic engineering.

A fair assessment of the Encyclopaedia naturally has to take into account limitations of space. There isn’t room to include everything one would like, and there isn’t room for much of what has been included to be treated as fully as one would like. Most entries are of necessity pared down to the bone.

This is not to say that it doesn’t offer constant incidental pleasures. Like any decent reference book, and more than most, it encourages you to browse: look up one item, and there is a good chance that your eye will be caught by the next—and then quite possibly the one after that, and then the one after that. Consider, for example, an undemanding four-page ramble from “Krakatoa” (assuming that is where you start) to “krypton” (assuming that is as far as you get). It takes in, among a great deal else, Kraków, Kristianstad (“earliest example of Renaissance town planning in N Europe”), Krasnoyarsk (which has a considerably larger population than that of Boston), and the island of Krk. In the course of it you will be able to learn about the god Krishna, about Kronos, the youngest of the Titans, about the ramifications of the Krupp dynasty, the principal paintings of Lee Krasner, the annual endowment of the Kresge foundation, the flora and fauna of Kruger National Park, the six-hundred-volume oeuvre of the Polish novelist Józef Kraszewski, the full name of Jack Kramer the tennis player, the real name of Mercator the cartographer, the other claims to fame of the Kreutzer to whom the Kreutzer Sonata was dedicated, the leading ideas of Prince Kropotkin, the puppet plays of Alfred Kreymborg, the varied careers of Krupskaya, Karl Kraus, Ivar Kreuger, and Arthur Krock, and the metabolic significance of the Krebs cycle. You will also be able to reflect on the odds against two Nobel laureates in Medicine (in 1953 and 1992) both being called Krebs; you will be reminded, or perhaps informed, that there are other kremlins besides the one in Moscow, that Alfred Kroeber the anthropologist was born in Hoboken, and that Fritz Kreisler wrote an operetta called Sissy.

Facts, up to a point, are their own reward, and all this is very absorbing. Still, browsing is not what the Encyclopaedia is really about. Its approach is businesslike, its tone is sober. It is designed to supply answers—and who can doubt that it succeeds? So it should, after all. The new edition builds on the work of its predecessors; it was five years in the making; it boasts the services of 115 academic advisers, along with a board of eminent consultants, and sixty-six editors of varying grades (not counting design specialists and proofreaders). Accuracy and, within limits, comprehensiveness are only to be expected.

But even Homer nods.

On this particular occasion he starts nodding as early as page 3, with the entry for Edwin Abbott Abbott (1838–1926), author and clergyman, of whom we learn that “he wrote several theological works and a biography (1885) of Francis Bacon, but he is best known for his standard Shakespearian Grammar (1870).” The Shakespearian Grammar was an important pioneering work, but if Abbott’s name still means anything to the world at large it is surely on account of a book which the entry fails to mention—the mathematical fantasy Flatland (reprinted by Dover Publications a few years back).

A small point, perhaps, but if you are going to have an article about Abbott at all, why not get it right? And the first mistake or misjudgment gives warning of others to come. The entry on Harold Nicolson, for example, contains references to no fewer than fifteen of his books, but manages to omit the best of them, Some People (his “one very good book,” in the view of Edmund Wilson). Or take the treatment of the painter Gwen John, who is allocated a mere two lines at the end of the entry for her brother Augustus. This certainly doesn’t reflect the current status of the two of them, relative to each other; and it is in any case quite misleading to characterize Gwen as “a painter in the Pre-Raphaelite manner.”

One or two further examples. The article on Australian literature is unsatisfactory. Its list of leading Australian poets, for instance, completely ignores some of the most obvious contenders, including A.D. Hope and Les A. Murray. The article on the French cinema is sadly inadequate. Weighted toward the present or the recent past, it passes over in silence such important if disparate figures as Louis Jouvet, Julien Duvivier, Raimu, Fernandel, Edwige Feuillère, Jacques Tati, Max Ophuls, and for that matter Marcel Ophuls. (Of these, only Jouvet gets an entry to himself elsewhere in the book, and it fails to mention his film work.)

The article on the British cinema is even less helpful. It opens with a reference to “early efforts (c. 1929) by the producer J. Arthur Rank to achieve a world market for British films.” (Rank didn’t in fact become involved in film making until the mid-1930s, and his attempt to break into the world market took place in the 1940s.) This is followed by the statement that Alfred Hitchcock was a leading post-World War Two British director. (By 1940 Hitchcock was working almost entirely in Hollywood.)

A particularly difficult question for a reference book is how far an entry ought to cover the secondary aspects of someone’s career. Mostly, as far as I can judge, the Encyclopaedia gets this right. Sometimes it doesn’t. The entry for the German physicist Philipp Lenard, for instance, sticks exclusively to his scientific achievements; it should have found room to record his role as the foe of Einstein and leader of “Aryan physics” under the Nazis.

A related problem is deciding where it is or is not appropriate to refer to marriage partners, members of a subject’s family, or other associates. Here again the editors’ approach strikes me as broadly sensible, but inconsistent. It is sensible that they should point out that Erskine Caldwell was once married to Margaret Bourke-White, or that Edward Steichen was Carl Sandburg’s brother-in-law, or that Howard Nemerov was Diane Arbus’s brother (though if you look up “Diane Arbus” you won’t be told that she was Howard Nemerov’s sister). I find it odd, on the other hand, that the entry for Thomas Mann should contain subentries for his son Klaus and his daughter, Erika, but not for his son Golo, the historian; or that there should be nothing to indicate that Vladimir Nabokov’s father was an important political figure (many less distinguished parents are listed); or that a fairly detailed entry for the British politician Duff Cooper shouldn’t contain any reference to his equally if not more famous wife, Diana Cooper; or that you are left to work out for yourself from their separate entries whether there was any connection between Colley Cibber the playwright and Caius Gabriel Cibber the sculptor (Caius Gabriel was Colley’s father); or that there is an entry for Walt Rostow but not so much as a hint of the existence of Eugene Rostow; or that the entry for George du Maurier contains a subentry for his granddaughter Daphne Du Maurier, but nothing about his son—and Daphne’s father—the once-celebrated actor Gerald (apart from an unexplained reference to the memoir Daphne wrote about him).

Even a casual trawl through the book also reveals minor slips. Tristan Tzara is wrongly described as a painter rather than a writer (p. 2628); the real name of Hergé, the creator of Tintin, is given as “Rémis” (p. 608) when it ought to be “Remi”; the founder of the French branch of the Rothschilds is referred to as Jacob (p. 2365), when he is known to history as James. And Homer doesn’t only nod—in spite of his team of proofreaders, he also perpetrates typos. Q.D. Leavis, who now gets an article to herself, wouldn’t be best pleased to be told that she had written a study of “Jane Austin,” and Wilfred Owen would be surprised to learn that he was a friend of “Sigfried Sassoon.”
Mistakes like these, which might be pardonable in a newspaper produced in a hurry, are harder to overlook in an encyclopaedia. But one shouldn’t make too much of them either. The overwhelming impression made by the Columbia is still one of accuracy.

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