Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911
At its core, Everything Explained That Is Explainable is about the advent of the modern world – “the arrival of which came as a bit of a surprise, less than a century after Waterloo.” Ostensibly about the creation of the fabled Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica – which boasted entries by luminaries like T.H. Huxley and Bertrand Russell – Denis Boyles’ wonderful book is really, like any worthwhile history, the story of the place and time that made the encyclopedia possible.
British imperialism was at its height at the dawn of the Twentieth Century and a strong faith in progress was at the heart of the Anglo-Saxon worldview. “Blocks of knowledge had been piled up all through history—each layer lifting mankind higher and higher, setting Romans on Greeks, materialism on faith, whites on blacks.” And the Eleventh’s editor, Hugh Chisholm, was determined to create a work that encompassed this.
Previous editions of the Britannica “seemed to possess the received wisdom of all bearded grandfathers,” but Chisholm was adamant about crafting a story that would “explain everything, including where we are and how we got here, where we’re going, and what it all might mean.”
Delightfully comprehensive and forcefully engaging, Boyles’ history of the Eleventh may not explain everything, but it does explain a hell of a lot.