Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The mirror and the encyclopedia

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The news that the Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print, restricting itself in the future to its online edition, marks the end of an era not just for the reference library, but for something far greater—the modern novel at the very least, and probably imaginative literature as a whole. It’s a change that has been coming for a long time, but inevitable as it might be, I can’t help but regard it with a sense of loss. The Britannica, as much as the King James Bible or Shakespeare, exerted a subterranean influence on world literature for more than a century, and its power was derived from the very peculiar idea of two dozen physical books, widely available in a home or library, that embodied the contents of an orderly, well-educated brain. Writers could confront it, deconstruct it, or create their own alternatives to it, but if they were drawn to or repelled from it in various ways, it’s because it was always there, an imposing physical object on library shelves.

To steal a line from Borges, most writers owe their careers to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia. If there are two kinds of authors in the world—one that focuses on the self, another that turns outward for external material to process and rearrange—the latter often takes the encyclopedia, not the mirror, as the battleground where his primary engagement as a writer will take place. A physical encyclopedia is the whole world, at least in a form that a writer can readily assimilate, and it leads inevitably to dreams of reshaping reality as art. Much of the monstrous erudition of an author like Borges, for instance, comes directly from his deep familiarity and fascination with the Britannica—a stance made clear in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which a “literal but delinquent” reprint of the Britannica plays an important role—and it’s hard to imagine that particular brand of universal man emerging from Wikipedia or TV Tropes, although they’ve already begun to exercise their own form of literary influence.

But there’s an important difference here. Unlike Wikipedia, with its constantly updated and expanding web of entries, the physical Britannica, with its two shelves of volumes, represented a world of information that was large, but not infinite, and temptingly static: one always had the impression, real or not, that all of it could be consumed, processed, and engaged. I’m not just talking about compulsive encyclopedia readers like Amos Urban Shirk or A.J. Jacobs, but about writers who internalized and transformed the encyclopedic model in their own work. Joyce called Ulysses “a kind of encyclopedia,” and such critics as Edward Mendelson have charted the encyclopedic urge in fiction down to its climax in Pynchon and Eco. Today, the truly encyclopedic novel is passing out of existence, or, rather, has been assimilated into our daily experience of the world’s information. Wikipedia is our real Encyclopedia Galactica, or, better, our Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and this everyday miracle has turned information into a utility like water or electricity, rather than what it used to be: a treasure hoard.

This transition can only alter the role of information in a writer’s life in fundamental ways, and I’ve already felt its effects in my own experience. Encyclopedias have played a major role in my life: as a child, I spent hours browsing in the Britannica set in my local library—I remember being particularly drawn to the Macropaedia article by William L. Schaaf on “Number Games and Other Mathematical Recreations”—and various kinds of encyclopedias were always on my Christmas list. Even today, I can’t pass the sadly pristine set of the World Book at my local library in Oak Park without pausing to browse for a moment, caught up by the illusion that it’s all here, if only I have the patience to find it. This streak of information hunger is what culminated, many years later, in The Icon Thief. And it’s unclear if my own children will ever have this experience. As open to serendipity as Wikipedia can be, it still presents the world as a network of nodes of increasing specificity, rather than a series of deep alphabetical slices. And whatever the gain in detail or expansiveness, it still feels like a loss to the imagination.

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2012 at 10:00 am

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