IN THE PICKWICK PAPERS Mr. Pott, the editor of a very parochial newspaper, attempts to persuade Mr. Pickwick of the high quality of a series of learned articles lately published in his periodical:
They appeared in the form of a copious review of a work on Chinese metaphysics, sir,” said Pott.
“Oh,” observed Mr. Pickwick; “from your pen, I hope?”
“From the pen of my critic, sir,” rejoined Pott with dignity.
“An abstruse subject, I should conceive,” said Mr. Pickwick.
“Very, sir,” responded Pott, looking intensely sage. “He crammed for it, to use a technical but expressive term; he read up for the subject, at my desire, in the Encyclopædia Britannica.”
“Indeed!” said Mr. Pickwick. “I was not aware that that valuable work contained any information respecting Chinese metaphysics.”
“He read, sir,” rejoined Pott, laying his hand on Mr. Pickwick’s knee and looking round with a smile of intellectual superiority, “he read for metaphysics under the letter M and for China under the letter C, and combined his information, sir!”
THE CRITIC’S STRATEGY is not, strictly speaking, an example of the fallacy of composition, which consists in inferring that a characteristic of some members of a group is characteristic of all. But we may be confident that the result was the composition of a great many errors, in any case.
Pickwick was published in 1836-37, so the version of Britannica consulted by Mr. Pott’s critic may well have been the Supplement to the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Editions, which was the first to feature signed contributions by notable writers and scholars. Among those whose work our critic may have sampled were T.R. Malthus, James Mill, David Ricardo, P.M. Roget, Walter Scott, and Thomas Young, whose original and pioneering work in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics was first published in the Supplement.
SOME YEARS EARLIER the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had been involved in the planning of a new encyclopedia, the Metropolitana, which was to be organized in a radically new way. As to the notion of looking something up under the letter M and something else under the letter C, he scoffed:
To call a huge unconnected miscellany of omni scibile [all things knowable], in an arrangement determined by the accident of initial letters, to call it an encyclopaedia is the impudent ignorance of your Presbyterian bookmakers.
By “Presbyterian” he meant “Scottish,” pointing at those two fellows in Edinburgh who produced the first Britannica. He had a point about the arbitrariness of alphabetical ordering. But on the other hand, the Scots finished their work.
The question of how best to organize the information in an encyclopedia has no settled answer. Ought there to be a few long articles covering broad areas of knowledge, thus emphasizing the interconnectedness of things (but then the question of organization emerges again at the article level), or a great many short ones focusing on the specifics and the details, or a mix of the two? If the latter, should the articles be arranged by the relatedness of their topics rather than alphabetically? However any given work is built, the question for users will be, how will they find what they want?
Tables of contents, indexes, thumb tabs, and other devices have long been used to help find specifics within a mass of information. With the development of electronic databases and search software the finding has been greatly simplified, though the results are not always entirely satisfactory. For example, I’d long been under the impression that Pickwick was written by Charles Dickens alone, not long ago Wikipedia was pleased to inform me, via Google, that Gustav Meyrink, a rather later Austrian writer, was his coauthor.
As always in this Brave New World, that’s only an error if you already know better.
Robert McHenry is the former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He is the author of How to Know (Booklocker, 2004). His work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Skeptical Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, and the American. He is the “Q.V.” columnist at The Fortnightly Review, where he provides notes and comment on reference works.