Know It All

The New Columbia Encyclopedia

edited by William H. Harris, edited by Judith S. Levey
Columbia University Press, 3,052 pp., $79.50

Who needs an encyclopedia of over 3,000 pages, some 324 cubic inches (or about a fifth of a cubic foot) in volume, and containing more than six-and-a-half million words? The answer must be: everyone who is strong enough to lift it or to sustain its considerable weight on his lap without serious interference to the circulation of the blood. For everyone is from time to time in need of information not readily retrievable from the memories of his immediate domestic or social circle, the telephone book, or the dictionary. Such an aid to knowledge will be of the greatest value as long as that variety of human temperament persists which believes that questions of simple fact can be settled by pure, and usually noisy, argument. It serves, at the very least, as a practicing empiricist’s shelter from the fallout of misplaced reasoning.

The New Columbia Encyclopedia is the fourth edition of the traditional Columbia Encyclopedia, whose first edition came out in 1935 and which was substantially revised in 1950 and 1963. I have been a gratified user of the work since its second edition (my copy of which was made off with by an unworldly-seeming schoolmaster). The way in which the two succeeding editions have retained all the gratifying features of their predecessors, such as the inclusion of all Biblical proper names of persons and places, and the extremely helpful pronunciation guide, gives the special sort of pleasure provided by the survival, in a remodeled hotel, of a favorite bar. Of course, as my strength declines with age, the bulk of the work increases. With its 7,000 new entries bringing the total of entries to 50,000 it has increased by a sixth on that account alone. The new type used, a lucid but rather brutally unornamental lettering, suggestive of computers and prestige advertising, in place of the pleasantly old-fashioned, almost official-looking type of the past, appears to take up more space for a given amount of matter, thus bringing about a further enlargement.

Its greatest virtue is that it is still a one-volume work. That means that research can be carried on without moving from one’s chair; cross-references can be pursued, whimsical trains of free association can be indulged without having to exchange the volume in hand for another. What is more, the parts of the work remain in their correct or intended order. There is nothing to compare it with in English. The Micropedia part of the new Encyclopaedia Britannica, though it does have a lot of colored pictures, does not give all that much more in the way of essentials, and it takes ten volumes to do so.

Naturally nothing can be treated very fully in a work of this kind. The longest article, I think, is that on the United States, whose geography and history have to be covered in 13,000 words or so. It would be unreasonable to ask for more. What can be done to help the stimulated inquirer is to provide bibliographies,…

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