BOOK REVIEW / A to Z of Victorian values: 'All there is to know: A Selection from the 11th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica' - ed Alexander Coleman & Charles Simmons: Deutsch, 20 pounds

THE Encyclopaedia Britannica, like many of man's finer creations, originated north of the border. Its first edition was launched in Edinburgh between 1768 and 1771. Some 1,700 years earlier, Pliny the Elder compiled the oldest surviving compendium of knowledge in his great Natural History. The shining conception of an encircling system of instruction, in which all disciplines flowed into each other, formed the basis of free- born education in ancient Greece. Plato's pupil Speusippus produced an encyclopaedia, long- vanished, as did Cato the Very Depressing, as did Varro. But it was in the 18th century that the art or craft reached its apogee, with the 28 volumes of Diderot and D'Alembert's stupendous Encyclopedie, among whose contributors were Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire. Its entries were arranged in the traditional thematic manner. The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia Britannica, more modest in scope, compromised mildly by introducing an alphabetical element. A hundred years later it was in its ninth edition and had become the largest in any language, rivalled only by the German Lexikon. In the high-flowering of autodidacticism on both sides of the Atlantic, a further 10 volumes were added; the resulting opus extended more than seven feet, an unruly, unworkable leviathan.

American marketing and British scholarship combined to redress the situation. Horace Hooper was an entrepreneur trained in the mass- marketing of books in the USA. He came to London, bought the Britannica from its Edinburgh owners and involved the Times in backing the unwieldy 10th edition. This provoked cries of rage from traditionalists: 'The Times is behind the Encyclopaedia and the Encyclopaedia is behind the times,' and: 'From my bath, I curse you.' But Hooper's credo ('It is immoral for invaluable information to be shut off away from the people') was sympathetic to a public eager for improvement. Hooper took on Hugh Chisholm, a visionary journalist and scholar, as editor of the 10th and 11th edition, which appeared in 1910.

The 11th edition, updated, expanded and rewritten by 1,500 contributors, is the great one. Its 29 volumes were printed on the finest Oxford India paper and covered with tough card bound in thin leather; despite a massive increase in subject matter, its 44 million words stretched to a mere two and a half feet of library space, to be pleasingly accommodated on the shelving which was offered with them. For the first time in the history of multi- volume reference books, it was possible to possess the 'Sum of Human Knowledge' in one fell swoop. The traditional arrangement by theme was retained, with a single-volume index. Physical accessibility was matched by immediacy of style, a tone that was civil, unpatronising, but scholarly - beloved still in countless childhood memories. With hindsight, it possesses the dubious poignancy of Victorian certitudes, reflecting an ordered world of seeming paternal benevolence, about to end in the bloody horrors of the trenches.

So much for the 11th Encyclopaedia in general. Here we are presented with an anthology, which suffers from the deficiencies of the genre, but also contains some wonderful pieces. The contents are arranged under nine headings of varying attraction; at the end are four longer essays. One of the great pleasures of an encyclopaedia is the rummage element, the wandering and discovery. Here it's been done for you, and you don't necessarily feel grateful. While I enjoyed some of the brief lives, especially and suitably John Aubrey's, I could wish for the exclusion of 'Crime and Punishment' or its hideous sections on 'Scalping, Boiling and Blinding'. 'Fun and Games' aren't much fun either, although there is a wondrously detailed explanation of how to mount a horse. Macaulay's sad comment on the Puritans' reason for stopping bear-baiting still has resonance - 'not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators'. Lycanthropy, conjuring and hysteria are all well served. Hysteria, 'to which the Latin races are much more prone' does afflict some of our island race: 'Occupation, albeit rather sad want of occupation, is a prolific cause. This is noticeable more especially in the higher classes of society.'

The parts I enjoyed were on 'Natural Selection'. Despite the squalor of grebes and rails in their attempts at nidification, 'these birds do not spurn the duties of maternity'. Greater squalor yet attends 'Other races and their ways': puddles of blood and the corpses of seals litter the Eskimo homestead, the Greek is 'deficient in some of the qualities that make for national greatness', and the piece on the Negro is unquotable. I was pleased to hear that 'it sometimes happens that a Gipsy mother will hold her child by the legs and beat the father with it'. There are pages on tea and pages on precedence, two beautiful essays by Macaulay and there's Edmund Goss, sumptuous on 'Style'. But there is not enough of anything to give one a sense of the period, and there are longueurs. Better by far to seek out the original.

The current edition, the so-called New Britannica, has long since succumbed to the American way of death: polluted and flabby. The New Caxton or the Everyman are half the size and twice as good. The 11th edition may serve now as a monument, not only to its epoch but to its dynasty.