According to Wikipedia, the seventh most-popular website in the world is Wikipedia. Google, unsurprisingly, tops that list, and if you use its search engine to query the term “Encyclopaedia Britannica”, Britannica.com, a site few of us ever think to visit, is its first hit. The second search result, however, is a Wiki entry dedicated to the Britannica, its once-unrivaled predecessor, and in many ways, Wikipedia’s long-lost parent.

Thus a mutualistic relationship, which remains a lopsided rivalry, between intellectual repositories both new and old, is placed in stark contrast. The accuracy of Wikipedia’s crowd-sourced chaos, versus the Britannica’s commanding scholarship, has been studied by experts. The former’s scientific entries, for example, have withstood the technical scrutiny of such serious publications as Nature and the Journal of Clinical Oncology. And yet, the 40,000 entries of the Britannica’s beloved Eleventh Edition, a monument of Edwardian optimism and rationalism, has “[provided] an important content backbone to Wikipedia.” So writes Denis Boyles in his prologue to Everything Explained That Is Explainable, a recounting of the Eleventh Edition’s tumultuous and, ultimately, triumphant origin. In it, Boyles indirectly shows how Wikipedia, our modern edifice of easy knowledge, as inexpensive and pervasive as the air we breathe, towers so high thanks to some costly scaffolding, first built at the turn of the 20th century.

This tale of the Eleventh Edition’s creation resembles a description Boyles offers, late in the book, about his subject: “it’s plausible, reasonable, unruffled, often reserved, completely authoritative.” Everything Explained is, here and there, a paean to a “great reference work”, and Boyles’ windup can be irresistible. “It’s now more than a century old,” he writes, “but whether you know it or not, your view of the world has been shaped by the Eleventh’s insightful and deep comprehension of what has mattered most in the modern world.” Sadly, Boyles’ concern is less with how and why the Eleventh changed, or codified, the fundamental perceptions of its readers, which is almost taken for granted. He’s more interested in shrewd operations and maneuvers, the business of publishing such an influential tome.

As such, the hero of Everything Explained is Horace Everett Hooper, a visionary American bibliophile, who first repackaged outdated editions of the Britannica before unleashing the Eleventh’s top-to-bottom redesign on the English-speaking public. Hooper, in one of his many coups, convinced a British newspaper, The Times, to rebrand and aggressively market the encyclopedia to middle-class subscribers, with innovative gimmicks that would seem all too familiar to our current sensibilities. Boyles spends half of his book describing, with exacting detail, how this confluence of journalism, scholarship, and advertising came to be. With the help of some brilliant and fascinating underlings (including Henry Haxton, a proto-Don Draper), Hooper resuscitated the fortunes of a flailing newspaper and a world-class intellectual endeavor at once.

There’s a lot of comprehensive, somewhat dry, backstory in Everything Explained, but it mostly pays off when Boyles at last fixes the spotlight on the 11th Edition in his final few chapters. He loosens up, offers a bit of commentary and perspective (particularly with regard to its controversies). But Boyles half-heartedly supports his central premise, of the Eleventh Edition’s lasting legacy. The ins-and-outs of how this “single organism” emerged is lovingly executed. Alas, Denis Boyles plants the seed and then fails to show why this edition of the Britannica, over decades, grew into a mighty sequoia that became the lumber of a free website.

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