ATG Book of the Week: Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911

Everything explainedTitle: Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911
Author: Denis Boyles
ISBN: 978-0307269171, $30

Imprint: New York, Knopf, 2016

“The publication of the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica in 1911 marked the last stand of the Enlightenment and a turbulent end to an era. The Eleventh Edition summed up the high point of optimism and belief in human progress that dominated Anglo-Saxon thought from the time of the Enlightenment.

Eagerly embraced by hundreds of thousands of middle-class Americans, the Eleventh Edition was read as a twenty-nine-volume anthology of some of the best essays written in English. Among the names of those who contributed to its volumes: T. H. Huxley, Algernon Swinburne, Bertrand Russell; it was the work of 1,500 eminent contributors and was edited by Hugh Chisholm, charismatic star editor.

The Britannica combined scholarship and readability in a way no previous encyclopedia had or ever has again. Within less than a decade after its publication, the Edwardian worldview was at an end: the “unsinkable” White Star Titanic had sunk on its maiden voyage; Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and the Great War had begun. 

In Everything Explained That Is Explainable, Denis Boyles tells the audacious, improbable story of twentieth-century American hucksterism and vision that resurrected a dying Encyclopædia Britannica by means of a floundering London Times, and writes of how its astonishing success changed publishing and produced the Britannica’s Eleventh Edition, still the most revered—all 44 million words—of English-language encyclopedias, considered by many to be the last great work of the age of reason…”


“Highly readable . . . Denis Boyles limns the intricate business of negotiations that went into the creation of the Eleventh Edition . . . Boyles provides excellent portraits of the key figures responsible for the 19th- and early-20th-century editions of the Britannica.”

–Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal


“A thorough and engaging telling of the Eleventh Edition’s conception and birth, midwifed by an eclectic group of madcaps who succeeded in producing a literary treasure the likes of which will never be seen again.”

–David Bahr, National Review


“Almost reads like fantastic fiction. The book drops you into a time when print publishers possessed the same dynamism as today’s web developers and authors celebrated as much fame as prime time pundits . . . Engaging.”

–Jeff Milo, Paste


“An encyclopedic biography of the iconic reference work . . . A surfeit of information on the Encyclopædia Britannica . . . Entertaining . . . Fun . . . Boyles shows in great detail that the Britannica was as much a product of advertising and marketing as it was of condensed knowledge . . . Boyles writes with such a mordant touch his chapters move along even as they assault you with hurricanes of information.”

–Matthew Price, The Boston Globe


“A definitive and meticulously researched chronicle of the creation of the Encyclopædia Britannica’s Eleventh Edition.”

–Donald Liebenson, The Chicago Tribune


“The latest word on everything—that was the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica when it first appeared in 1910. It would become immortal, not only because of its distinguished contributors, from Swinbourne to Huxley and Bertrand Russell, but because it was considered “the sum of human knowledge’—or almost. Dennis Boyles’s lively, unexpected and erudite set of essays tells us why.”

–Meryle Secrest


“In Everything Explained that is Explainable, Denis Boyles brings to life a rollicking saga of outlandish schemes, copyright theft, lawsuits, buyouts, and bankruptcies.”

–James Gibney, The American Scholar


“Boyles’s account of how this classic reference work came to be published in 1910-1911 makes for enthralling business history.”

–Michael Dirda, The Washington Post


“How grit and determination created an encyclopedia for the modern world . . . 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 . . . Illuminating . . . A well-researched, brightly told history of the men and women who saved a great compendium of knowledge.”

–Kirkus Reviews

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