Tuesday, August 4, 2015

As chance would have it, the first article to fix my attention was that on dogs

Some years ago, in the UK, I came across a set of that extraordinary work, the storied eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. My wife purchased it for me as a birthday gift. Regrettably, this was at a period when I was travelling all over the world and my times of connection with the books were intermittent and brief. Then we moved back to the US and since then, with a household filled with children, animals, and many, many other books, the Eleventh Edition has sat in storage awaiting it's coming out day.

One of those many, many other books taking up shelf space is the masterpiece, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhuri. In it, Chaudhuri describes the Eleventh Edition in his life.
The greatest public event of 1911 in India was the Delhi Durbar, but for me the most memorable experience was my first acquaintance with the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its newly published eleventh edition. At Kishorganj we had learnt that the biggest English dictionary was the Webster, and whenever anyone there wanted to emphasize the size and weight of a book he said, “As big as Webster.” Even then a rumour had reached us of a still bigger dictionary whose name we heard as Anti-cyclopaedia Britannica. This mistake was a tribute to the nationalist movement which had taught us to be anti most things rather than pro anything and also to assume an inherent virtue in being anti something or other. On coming to Calcutta, however, we were enlightened as to the correct title and true character of the work. We even caught a glimpse of a set of the tenth edition under the double protection of a locked cupboard and a locked room in our school. But our real introduction to the Encyclopaedia took place in October 1911, when a cousin of mine who was an advocate of the High Court and who had bought the eleventh edition just after its publication, left the set in our house for two months, during which he was out of town on account of the annual vacation. We were not expected to take the volumes out of their packing-cases, but we did, although with a bad conscience, and, to begin with, a delicious fragrance gave us notice of the unusual greatness of the work. The appearance of the volumes made a still greater impression. Opening one I murmured, 'How beautifully smooth and white the paper is, yet how thin!' My cousin had bought the India paper edition in semi-limp binding of dark green sheepskin, with the arms of the colleges of Cambridge stamped on the sides. For some time we could take in nothing but an idea of the material appearance of the work.

Then we tried to find out what it contained. As chance would have it, the first article to fix my attention was that on dogs….It took me a number of days to work off the excitement over the dogs and take stock of the rest of the work. When I had done that, four articles came finally to keep me engaged on them throughout the time the set remained with us. They were articles on artillery, ordnance, ships and ship-building….A small number of books, which even yet I have not seen and about which I had only read, stirred my imagination so deeply in my early college days that they may be reckoned as very powerful influences on my intellectual growth. The first two of them were Beloch’s Griechische Geschichte and Busolt’s work with the same title. I had learnt their names from the article on Greek history in the Encyclopaedia Britannica….A third book was Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode und der Geschichtsphilosophie, about which I had come to know from Professor Shotwell’s article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica….Appropriately enough, the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica continued to be my mainstay in this absorbing exploration of the interrelatedness of all knowledge, and from it, in addition to acquiring the notion of correlation, I also acquired the bibliographical flair. I always read the bibliographical notes given at the end of the articles very carefully, and came to realize that before one could begin the study of any subject the essential preliminary was a knowledge of the most important books on it.

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