I don’t regularly read the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that we rescued decades ago. But it’s more useable now that the spouse has rebound it.It is overwhelming. Each of the twenty-nine volumes averages about 1,000 pages with entries I would not even think of looking up—“Hydrasine,” for example, is followed by “Hydrate,” which precedes about 180,000 words and scores of illustrations, charts, and equations on “Hydraulics.” But in its new state, I do consult this Britannica more often than I did before.

I thought it might be interesting to see what the learned books had to say about some important topics today. I looked up “Ukraine” and found but five lines telling me that it was a former name for a district of European Russia and that the “portion east of the Dnieper became Russian in 1686 and the portion west of that river in 1793.” That nearly-empty-cupboard entry perhaps tells me something of significance for today’s conflict, but I don’t know what. (On the same page, six times more space was given to “Uist, North and South,” which I had never heard of. Okay, I will tell you that they are islands in the Outer Hebrides, with a population then of about 5,000, apparently swelled sometimes by anglers.)

I then went to “Filibuster.” The brief entry first traced the word’s origin from Dutch through French and Spanish, where it became a term for pirate. It went on to say that in nineteenth century America it came to mean adventurers who organized expeditions in the United States to take part in revolutions in Central America and the West Indies. It concluded: “From this has sprung the modern usage of the word to imply one who engages in private, unauthorized and irregular warfare against any state. In the United States it colloquially applied to legislators who practice obstruction.” I did not learn–as I had hoped–the 1910 view about how congressional filibusters originated or their usefulness.

More satisfying, however, have been entries about places I plan to visit. We have booked an autumn trip to Rochester, New York. I appreciated getting some information about the city’s early history. I had no idea about the dramatic river cutting through the town. I wonder whether the landmark buildings the entry described will still be there, but it reminded me of some of the famous and important people who lived in Rochester in the nineteenth century. After reading the entry, I became even more eager for the trip.

The encyclopedia’s entry on Iceland was less enlightening because I had already visited and read books about the country when I looked it up. The topographical, geological, and historical discussions added little to what I had already seen or heard about. What was most surprising about the entry, however, was that more than half of it was devoted to the literature of Iceland, centering on ancient texts in an opinionated, authoritative tone. (“Taste has sunk since the old days, but still this rimur poetry is popular and genuine.”) But since I am interested in modern writing, the descriptions of what seems to be hundreds of ancient works held little interest for me.

Perhaps the most joy that the set has given me are the serendipitous discoveries when I search for something and my eye is drawn to an illustration. When I looked for Rochester, I saw five color plates accompanying “Robes,” and I (temporarily) learned that the garment for The Most Ancient Order of the Thistle is green with black and white accents and a long, golden braided cord hanging from the neck. (I also incidentally learned, again temporarily, that there is [or was] such a thing as The Most Ancient Order of the Thistle.)

Coronation Robe

Black and white photographs make me move on to “Round Towers,” and I learn for the moment that a “peculiar class of round tower exists in Ireland.” My search for Ukraine is interrupted by eight color plates of “Uniforms.” I can see how “France: Sergeant Alsace Regt: 1690,” “Ludhian Sikhs,” Prussian Generals, and many more were attired.


The most striking feature in the encyclopedia are its maps. Every volume has several, usually in color, that fold out to fifteen by twelve inches. The “Hus-Ita” book has foldouts for maps for Idaho and Montana, Illinois, two for India (Northern and Southern parts), Indiana, Iowa (but in black and white), and Ireland. The detail is incredible and serious examination requires a magnifier. (In a square inch of the Ireland map, I spot at least thirty-five labels.) They are maps, but also works of art. They are well preserved in the set. I feel a strong temptation to razor them out, mount them, and then add onto the house so that I can have a map room, but there are so many exquisite ones, it would have to be a somewhat large addition.

Map: Russia in Europe
Detail: Russia in Europe

I am grateful that the spouse rebound our long-possessed 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica, for while I doubt that it will be an everyday occurrence, I expect that I will dip into it more often now than I have in the past. And if you perhaps would like to know an early twentieth century viewpoint on something, let me know. As always, my research fees are reasonable.

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