This is an excellent book to read cover to cover or just
to dip into at anytime - we keep our copy in the bathroom!
is the oldest continuously
published reference work in the English Language. It had its birth in Edinburgh,
Scotland in the late 18th century (a period known as the Scottish Enlightenment),
Colin MacFarquhar, a printer, and Andrew Bell, an engraver, decided to create an
encyclopedia for the new era and formed a 'Society of Gentlemen' to publish the
work. They hired William Smellie, a 28 year-old scholar, to edit it.
Their aim was to create an encyclopedia that would be arranged alphabetically and
"compiled upon a new plan in which the different Sciences and Arts are
digested into distinct Treatises or Systems."
Just like the Oxford English Dictionary (which was begun sometime later...
Beyond the Book
If your shelf space allows it, I encourage you to buy yourself a
set of encyclopedias. However, I'm not thinking of the modern Britannica
(because you can save a lot of trees and money by buying the electronic version
of the entire 32 volumes for less than $70 at
but an older encyclopedia. We've had many happy hours with our 10 volume
Chambers Encyclopedia (1892) that we bought for the equivalent of about
$75 in England almost twenty years ago. Not only is it fairly useful for
referencing history before the 19th century but it also provides a fascinating
snapshot of how the late 19th century educated classes saw their world. Our favorite entry
explanation of why powered flight is quite impossible because the...