Back in the Mesozoic of my life, I came across a quotation from Giacomo Casanova that, as far as I can remember these days, went “No man can know everything, but every man should attempt to.” For many decades, I didn’t know the source, or whether it was misquoted, misattributed, or simply a fake as we experience so often on most internet quote sites (aka clickbait sites). But it stuck with me. I recently found a more fulsome translation of his words from Chapter V of his memoirs:
No one in this world can obtain a knowledge of everything, but every man who feels himself endowed with faculties, and can realize the extent of his moral strength, should endeavour to obtain the greatest possible amount of knowledge.
Although my remembered version of his words was somewhat truncated, the sentiment remained true to the original: learn as much and as often as you can throughout your life. I am, at heart, an eager autodidact. For me, “lifelong learning” has always been in my nature; not merely something I decided to pursue after retirement. Wikipedia describes it as the
…ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.
Lifelong learning is also known by the delightfully awkward word heutagogy, coined in 2000 to describe self-directed or self-determined learning. Heutagogy is also defined as the study of such self-determined learning. But let’s not digress on that right now. Let’s leave it by saying that learning should be everyone’s lifelong goal.
See how easily I brought both learning and Wikipedia into my final piece on encyclopedias? Wikipedia is the information source for millions of users every day; a pretty remarkable resource given that it is free (although I regularly donate to their cause). Back in my day, encyclopedias with this much content cost a lot of money; more than my own family could afford. Now everyone with an internet connection has access to its 6.5 million articles (with an average of approximately 1,291 words per article), and a total of more than 3.9 billion words. Would that more people used it for fact-checking before posting on social media.
In his book, A Brief History of Encyclopedias (Hesperus Press, 2011), Andrew Brown wrote of Wikipedia that it
…realises many of the aspirations of earlier encyclopedias. Their clumsy cross-references are now deft links in hyperspace; their attempts at exhaustiveness are dwarfed by its ever-expanding resources; their increasingly rapid obsolescence is replaced by its ability to police itself and carry out immediate updates and revisions… it can be modified wherever failings are found, without being untrue to its vocation…
One area he doesn’t touch on is the effect of physical browsing on a reader’s knowledge and understanding. As I mentioned in earlier pieces, looking through any encyclopedia exposes the reader to many more subjects and ideas than just the focus of his or her search (assuming, of course, the reader is willing to explore them).
Online services don’t offer such opportunities for randomness or casual exploration. Like with Amazon and bookstores, people tend to use Wikipedia for directed searches, not browsing. And in fact, browsing at random as one would in a bookstore or an encyclopedia is very difficult online. Yet by not doing so they lose the potential gains in learning and wisdom — or just those random sparks of insight — that browsing can provide. Browsing is in itself a learning experience.
More to the point: you retain and learn more from reading a physical book than from reading the same material online (and ditto with both hearing podcasts and watching videos). A recent article on BigThink.com by Naomi S. Baron, Professor of Linguistics at Emerita American University, about the difference between physical and online reading noted:
When reading texts of several hundred words or more, learning is generally more successful when it’s on paper than onscreen. A cascade of research confirms this finding.
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks – like identifying the main idea in a reading passage – to ones that require mental abstraction – such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details – like “What was the color of the actor’s hair?” – and remembering where in a story events occurred – “Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?”
The article also refers to the “shallowing hypothesis” which suggests people read online with a “mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.” Again, that’s an argument for printed encyclopedias.
There’s a whole other post I could make here about the brain’s activity in reading; the brain’s ability to associate ideas and memories with the abstract symbols we call words and make sense out of them (I’ve written about it in the past, too). That’s something I’ll save for a later post, but consider this: reading is not inherent in us, nor do we have a genetically transmitted ability to read. Each and every one of us has to learn to read on our own. And like any muscle or skill, reading has to be exercised regularly or it will atrophy. If you don’t want to end up like one of our municipal councillors, then KEEP READING physical books.
I have also been known to delight in opening a dictionary at random and just reading to discover new words and definitions. Perhaps that’s an eccentricity today, with people turning to dictionary.com or other online sites for words, rather than meandering through the printed form. Again, I digress, but by not owning a physical dictionary, you can’t avail yourself of those delightful little nuggets of knowledge such excursions into its pages can bring.
I have precious few encyclopedias left in my personal library. Although I have never previously owned a full set of the general encyclopedia, like the Britannica, I have had many smaller ones, including several one-volume books like the New Columbia Encyclopedia (still have that one, although it’s from 1975), the 1934 two-volume King’s English Encyclopedia (see at right; still have it, too), and several encyclopedias of specific topics or themes, such as North American birds, tulips, hot peppers, typefaces, Greek philosophy, Big Bands, religions, pasta, and so on. These are not always called encyclopedias, but may be called compendiums or complete guides to something or other. But at heart, they are encyclopedias.
That being said, I still have several hundred (thousand?) reference books on my shelf that, while not encyclopedias, are still valuable sources of information (reluctantly, I recently downsized, including donating a dozen boxes of such books — mostly on writing, editing, and language usage — to the recent Optimists’ event, the Mother Of All Yard Sales). But thumbing through a single-source reference, even one arranged in encyclopediac form, does not offer the same broad sweep of knowledge and learning that can come from doing it within the general encyclopedia.
However, the medium of print, as Andrew Brown points out, is too slow for the digital age. Changes happen too quickly for the traditional encyclopedia (and dictionary) to keep up. People expect immediacy and that’s only available online. Even traditional, printed newspapers cannot keep up with events. As just one example, the horrific events of 9/11 were not described by the New York Times until Sept. 12. By then, everyone on the planet had seen the videos or read the stories online.
Charity shops are littered with sets of out-of-date encyclopedias; now we have the Web, which can update itself in the twinkling of an eye. We also know that… we have but ‘provisional relations’ with knowledge, a ‘transitory reliance’ on it — even though we know more than ever before.
Well, that last statement is certainly open to debate, especially since 2016 when a US presidential candidate flooded the internet with disinformation, misinformation, and outright lies. The flood of pseudoscience, particularly among the rightwing anti-vaccination and anti-mask (aka pro-disease) communities is another example where knowing something doesn’t make it factual or credible.
And then there’s Canada’s own Pierre Poilievre, Conservative leadership candidate, following Trump’s (and Putin’s) model of spreading economic and political misinformation and egregious codswallop about freedom and cryptocurrencies in order to gaslight his rightwing followers. And, sadly, it seems to work, at least among the Conservative crowd.
Brown comments somewhat on this in his reference to Wikipedia: that its ‘omnivoracity’ loses the distinction between “what is important and what is important.” The same problem lies with social media: every post and comment has equal weight. there is no distinction between fact and fiction, between fact and opinion, between fact and ideology or theology. There is only the barest whisper of fact-checking on any platform. Without a solid education or experience in the many issues discussed (or raged about) online, it is difficult for many to determine where the truth lies. Encyclopedias have contributed to that education for generations.
With the traditional encyclopedias, we had the expectation of at least basic factuality and objectivity. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of experts in their field contributed to the contents, and editors pored over their submissions, often sharing them with others in the author’s field to review and confirm them. The Book of Knowledge I reviewed in part two has a partial list that includes 94 contributors and editors. Encyclopedias had credibility. The internet has little to none. Even Wikipedia is subject to editorializing and editing to suit ideologies and agendas. Many of its entries have much-debated and questioned content.
And who contributes? Who edits it? Are they experts or just opinionated? What are their qualifications? Their educational awards and degrees? Do you actually know the source(s) of the material in anything on Wikipedia or any other online site? We often take for granted that the content is factual, correct, and created by someone appropriate. but just scroll through YouTube videos on any pseudoscience, UFO, conspiracy, fad diet, or New Age topic and you’ll see that there are more crackpots making videos than credible folk. How do you know that dropouts with aggressive political agendas like Alex Jones or Joe Rogan aren’t behind any Wikipedia entry?
There are self-described encyclopedias online that make no pretense of being either factual or objective. Some, like the rightwing Conservapedia, and numerous theological, political, and Talibangelist sites, provide an unapologetic ideological slant on everything within them. These become mere echo chambers when mined by believers for confirmation about existing beliefs and biases. And, of course, their content gets shared online without being fact-checked or verified, adding fuel to the social media fire.
Not that printed encyclopedias have been perfect. Mistakes get made, changes happen, incorrect data gets presented. This happens in even the most reputable publication. Humans are fallible. Back in 2006, the Economist reported on a battle between the editors of the Britannica and Nature magazine over some facts stated in the encyclopedia and how they compared with those subjects in Wikipedia. Nature claimed Britannica was wrong too often. This provoked a bitter exchange and counterpoints. The story noted:
…there are a couple of more serious issues. One is the overall accuracy of Britannica, the other is its relative accuracy compared with Wikipedia. On the first, Nature identified 123 errors in 42 Britannica articles. These comprise factual errors, misleading statements and critical omissions. However, many of these “errors” are really the opinion of the reviewers.
Britannica’s final print edition for the general public was a 32-volume set in 2010, although in 2020, the company released the Britannica All New Children’s Encyclopedia: What We Know and What We Don’t, aimed like the Book of Knowledge, at younger readers. In response, The Independent ran an opinion piece titled, “Bananas are radioactive: Why printed encyclopedias for children are more important than ever.” It noted:
In a world of fake news, learning how to trust information and determine the truth is more vital than ever for children. This encyclopedia is written and designed in a way to engage young people – and it gives them an overview of all the expert knowledge that they won’t always get from looking things up piecemeal. When you are young, you don’t know exactly what you are interested in and this book presents a whole spectrum of fascinating topics for them to discover more about themselves and the world we live in.
And like the Book of Knowledge, it is not arranged in the formal alphabetical structure, but, The Independent notes,
It’s not divided up into an A-Z look-up format, like encyclopedias of old. Nor it is divided into separate subjects like you find at schools. Instead, it is structured as a journey through time and space – a proper reflection of reality – that goes from the beginning of the universe to the present day in eight chapters: Universe, Earth, Matter, Life, Humans, Ancient Times, Modern Times and Today’s World & Tomorrow.
I am delighted that Britannica has done this and it’s a set I’d happily rescue, should one be destined for the landfill. That won’t likely happen for many more years to come (I hope). Unfortunately, this did not presage the return to print of other editions. (What happens to knowledge when you can’t get access to the site? or the internet crashes? or hackers attack it? or it simply shuts down? At least with a printed copy it is still intact if the power grid fails.)
There has always been a skein of anti-intellectualism* in our culture, particularly but not confined to the rightwing. Shakespeare even wrote about it in Henry VI Part 2, with the rebellion of Jack Cade. When the rebels capture Emmanuel, the clerk of Chatham, his captors accuse him of being able to read and write: signs he is among the learned they are opposed to. Cade shouts “O monstrous!” on hearing of the clerk’s abilities. Cade asks the clerk,
Dost thou use to write thy name? or
hast thou a mark to thyself, like an honest
For Cade and his followers, “honest, plain-dealing” men were illiterate, unable to read or write. When the clerk responds that, yes, he can write his name, he condemns himself to be hanged. Cade adds,
Away with him, I say! hang him with his pen and ink-horn about his neck.
Not much seems to have changed with Repugnican states happily banning dozens, even hundreds of books these days. Book banning helps keep the population uninformed, ignorant, and illiterate: the ideal audience for rightwing ideologies and theocracies that depend on faith rather than facts. Ideology far too often replaces thinking and literacy today and the easy availability of ideological content makes it easy to turn to online sources that confirm biases rather than spending time and effort to search for information in printed books, especially when that information may contradict a preconception or ideological opinion. And if those books have been banned by your government, where do you turn to find any voices dissenting from Big Brother’s line?
There are many public figures who vocally espouse anti-intellectualism in their campaigns or public lives. Many Repugnicans aggressively run on a platform of fake news, spreading egregious lies about opponents, Trump’s alleged 2020 victory, abortion, race, education, and much else. Repugnican representatives Marjory Taylor Greene and Lauren Bobert are two prime examples of rightwing anti-intellectualism taken to the extreme, to the point where one can only wonder how they manage to get themselves dressed each day without help. Both, of course, are avid followers of and believers in QAnon, a major source for conspiracies, lies, pseudoscience, and crackpot notions among the right.
In Canada, Conservative leadership candidate Piere Poilievre tweets his angry, nonsensical slogans and crayon economics to a willing crowd of equally anti-intellectual supporters. The New Blue Party contesting Ontario’s provincial election has a similar slogan-based platform, appealling to the uneducated or gullible among the right. Even among our own municipal council there are several staunch representatives of the trend against learning, literacy, education, and common sense. I doubt any of them have read a complete meeting agenda, much less a book, this term.
So what does this have to do with encyclopedias? A well-educated public is less likely to fall for the fake news and disinformation these politicians spread. And that starts with reading and determination to self-educate. For all its content, its strengths, and its uses, Wikipedia is not a substitute for the printed word. Nothing online is. Books matter, encyclopedias perhaps more today than ever before.
But what happens when no one publishes encyclopedias? Will we all become functioning idiots, barely able to cobble a sentence together, making incoherent, rambling statements about wildly untrue conspiracies, like Marjory Taylor Greene and Lauren Bobert? It seems a lot of Repugnicans are already headed that way and if the growing support for Pierre Poilievre and the New Blue Party is any indication, many conservatives in Canada are not far behind.
* Anti-intellectualism is well-defined in a paper on the StudioATAO site as:
…a social attitude that systematically undermines science-based facts, academic and institutional authorities, and the pursuit of theory and knowledge… often associated with America’s current ideological right, conservative thinkers, and religious followers…
Anti-intellectualism is often misunderstood as mere hostility towards acquiring knowledge, or the byproduct of the lack of a formal education. However, this definition ignores how anti-intellectualism has been wielded by those with power, as a means to uphold the ideas and systems that benefit them, and thus enabling the continued expansion of these attitudes through society over time.
Wikipedia has this definition (emphasis added):
Anti-intellectualism is hostility to and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectualism, commonly expressed as deprecation of education and philosophy and the dismissal of art, literature, and science as impractical, politically motivated, and even contemptible human pursuits. Anti-intellectuals present themselves and are perceived as champions of common folk—populists against political and academic elitism—and tend to see educated people as a status class that dominates political discourse and higher education while being detached from the concerns of ordinary people.
And a 2014 article in Psychology Today noted:
…a whole generation of youth is being dumbed down by their aversion to reading anything of substance and their addiction to digital “crap” via social media.