One afternoon in the mid-1970s I wandered into the Cornell University campus store and made my way to a small alcove where used books were sold. I really should have been at my carrel in Olin Library, dutifully hunched over Gregory the Great’s “Moralia,” a 4,000-page commentary on the book of Job. Needless to say, that much biblical exegesis could be dispiriting even to the most zealous grad student in medieval studies, which I then was, though my real, and secret, academic ambition was simply to read all the world’s great and influential books.

That ambition explains why my heart leapt when, among the shabby titles in the Cornell store’s alcove, I noticed 29 leather-bound volumes of what turned out to be the 11th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The set was marked $25 and, after a quick count to be sure it was complete, I raced to the cashier to hand over my money, fearful that the price might suddenly be raised or that someone else would swoop down and carry off my new-found treasure. I then borrowed a grocery store cart to wheel the oversize volumes back to my room. I still own those books, even though their spines have slowly crumbled away, such deterioration — called red rot — being sadly typical of the 11th’s aging leather.

Denis Boyles doesn’t mention red rot or, for that matter, the minuscule type of the smaller-size cloth-bound edition of the 11th, but “Everything Explained That Is Explainable” doesn’t overlook much else. Boyles’s account of how this classic reference work came to be published in 1910-1911 makes for enthralling business history.

Let me stress that word “business.” Except for chapters titled “The Single Organism” and “Offenses,” Boyles — a veteran journalist — doesn’t spend a lot of time on the actual contents of the EB. He points out a few of the more eccentric or charming entries (e.g., “loincloth”), laments the racism of certain articles and praises the editorial genius of Hugh Chisholm, who directed the nearly decade-long project and oversaw 1,507 contributors in the production of more than 44 million well-chosen words. Boyles also repeatedly stresses that the 11th proved so successful because it doesn’t just contain thousands of disparate articles on all kinds of subjects but was instead conceived as a single whole, a genuine “circle of knowledge” — the meaning of “encyclopedia” — so that the entries are interconnected, thoroughly indexed and, above all, written with the authority and panache characteristic of scholarship in the late Victorian and Edwardian age. World War I destroyed all that forever. To paraphrase poet Philip Larkin, never such confidence again.

"Everything Explained That Is Explainable" by Denis Boyles (Knopf)

In fact, a boundless, very American chutzpah is precisely what brought the 11th into being. While its London editorial offices were staffed by graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, the key strategists and financial players were largely outsiders. Chief among them was the businessman Horace Everett Hooper (1859-1922), once a stationer in Denver, who originally moved to England to sell leftover sets of the Britannica’s Ninth Edition, then to spearhead the supplements that made up the 10th Edition, before devoting all his energy and much of his bank account to underwriting the 11th. He is the principal hero of Boyles’s narrative. Honorable, kindly and driven, he believed fervently in the democratic spread of knowledge to all classes.

Supporting Hooper was another American, the brash direct-marketing genius Henry R. Haxton, whose sales campaigns in Britain and the United States included garish newspaper ads, fliers, pamphlets, contests and even personal telegrams, all of them frenetic with the kind of overblown rhetoric we associate with Professor Harold Hill of “The Music Man.” What could be more vulgar, sniffed the snootier Brits! But thousands of ordinary people bought thousands of sets of the Britannica on Hooper and Haxton’s installment plan.

Initially, the pair worked closely with Charles Moberly Bell, born in Egypt, where he had also spent most of his early life before becoming, at age 43, de facto editor of the Times of London. It wasn’t exactly a plum job. The newspaper was then losing vast sums of money and could barely stay afloat, especially because the shareholders tended to regard it as simply a cash cow. Hooper offered Bell a deal he couldn’t refuse: If the Times would lend its name to the sets of the Britannica’s Ninth Edition he was then trying to sell, he would share the profits. For a while the arrangement worked to the benefit of everyone. But just when the 11th was entering its final stages of preparation, Hooper was betrayed.

In effect, he and his dream-encyclopedia were double-crossed during the struggle between magnates Cyril Pearson and Alfred Harmsworth (Lord North­cliffe) to take over the Times. Forced to search for a new partner with a cachet comparable to that of the great newspaper, Hooper discovered that Cambridge University might be amenable to accepting his money in return for its imprimatur. First, though, editor Chisholm’s work needed to be vetted by a select three-man committee. Happily, the trio’s chairman — who quickly became an enthusiastic supporter of the new Britannica — was none other than M.R. James, the great antiquarian scholar now chiefly remembered as the author of the best ghost stories in English.

Besides being a biographical and narrative history, “Everything Explainable That Can Be Explained” is something of a dossier as well. Not only does Boyles reproduce many photographs and period illustrations, he also quotes frequently and at length from myriad letters, Haxton’s various advertisements, newspaper reports and the memoirs of Janet Hogarth, who oversaw the indexing of the 11th and outlived all her colleagues. Even Boyles’s notes and appendices proffer additional anecdotes and useful bits of information.

Slightly more than a century since its original publication, the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 11th Edition can now be found readily and freely available online. That’s certainly convenient, but any real devotee will want to have the actual set on his or her own shelves. Just watch out for red rot.

Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”

The author Denis Boyles (Maggie Boyles)
everything explained that is explainable

On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911

By Denis Boyles

Knopf. 442 pp. $30