How grit and determination created an encyclopedia for the modern world.
In the 1890s, the Encyclopedia Britannica, then in its Ninth Edition, and the prestigious Times of London both were losing money. Critic and editor Boyles (Superior, Nebraska: Common Sense Values of America’s Heartland, 2008, etc.), editor at large and columnist for Men’s Health, focuses on a pair of audacious American bookmen, Horace Everett Hooper and Henry Haxton, who hatched a plan to revive the fortunes of both eminent publications. They would use the newspaper to sell the encyclopedia by barraging readers with “bombastic, full-page and direct-mail marketing,” a form of advertising that the staid Times had never seen. For Hooper, promoting the encyclopedia was more than a way to make money: an idealist and anglophile, he saw the encyclopedia as “a tool for making the world a better, more civilized place by supporting his romantic vision of an English-speaking elite.” He aimed, he said, “to make the Britannica self-sustaining and give it to Britain as a national trust.” By the time the two men launched their plan, it was clear that the Ninth Edition was quickly becoming outdated. Scientific, technological, social, and political changes mandated new material, so they decided to produce supplemental volumes, hiring as editor respected journalist Hugh Chisholm, “a man of the world as well as a scholar.” Throughout his tenure, the heroic Chisholm served as ballast to ground Hooper’s wild enthusiasms. Boyles traces the evolution of the Britannica and the fate of the Times through lawsuits, battles for ownership, and ongoing money woes involving colorful, earnest, sometimes eccentric characters. It all culminated in the majestic 11th Edition: 40,000 long, erudite, yet accessible articles written by a huge number of renowned contributors. Boyles focuses mostly on the business end; his look at content is illuminating, though, and might well have been expanded.
A well-researched, brightly told history of the men and women who saved a great compendium of knowledge.