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The Quiet Wizards Who Update the Wisdom of the Britannica

November 06, 1987|BETTYANN KEVLES

Just about this time last year Larry Silver of Northwestern University received an invitation to contribute a revised biography of Rembrandt to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Silver recalls, "Nothing ever made my father so proud of me. For him there is one university--Harvard--and one great source of information--the Encyclopaedia Britannica."

The Britannica has been around so long that it seems as much a natural phenomenon as the Mississippi. Like the river, it gives the impression of permanence but is in reality in constant flux.

The highly touted appearance of the 15th edition in 1974 was the first new edition in 45 years. But since 1936, the Britannica has fought the problem of obsolescence by updating with annual printings to correct information that has been gainsaid. The 1988 printing, which will appear early next year, replaces old entries with the equivalent of three complete volumes of fresh pages.

A Select Group

Contributors are a select group. None volunteers. Invitation is the key word.

Potential authors receive formal letters of solicitation, in the manner of receiving a request to submit an autobiography to "Who's Who." A 12-member board of editors, which includes specialists in medicine, the natural and social sciences and generalists, scout the world for authors who combine expertise and writing talent. They watch book reviews, befriend academics and constantly enhance an extensive network of contacts.

Contributors to the 14 earlier editions have included some of the great thinkers of their day. The first edition, in 1768, contained essays by Benjamin Franklin on electricity and John Locke and David Hume on philosophy. Early 19th-Century editions included articles by Thomas Robert Malthus on population, James Mill on government, and Sir Walter Scott on chivalry.

Later the ninth edition, published between 1875 and 1889, included Thomas Henry Huxley on biology and Kropotkin on anarchy, an essay actually composed in the French prison at Clairvaux while he was serving time for inciting strikes in Lyons. His jailers, sensitive to the reputation of the Britannica, provided him with a writing room and materials.

The famous 11th edition of 1911 had a tie-in with Cambridge University and included articles by Matthew Arnold, Robert Louis Stevenson and Alfred North Whitehead. The 13th in 1926 included Trotsky on Lenin as well as articles by Houdini and Marie Curie.

Many of today's contributors are professors like Larry Silver. About 40 and a well-known authority on Flemish Renaissance art, he knows that he was not the first choice. His own mentor had turned down the request. Like other "stars," the older scholar did not want to take the time to write a thorough yet original account for the general reader.

But Silver did. He thought of it as a chance to address a larger audience like the intelligent students he meets with in Chicago, and it was an opportunity to set the record straight. Many of Rembrandt's works have recently been disavowed by a board of "experts" in Holland, who have reattributed some of the most famous canvases to other artists. Silver argues that they are mistaken, because they do not understand that Rembrandt was not a mystic who painted in solitude but was an entrepreneur like Rubens, with a workshop in which he subcontracted parts of his canvases to other painters.

Fees paid contributors are uniform and are based on length. They are not very high, but that is not the point. All Britannica articles are signed, which gives an author visibility. As important, the very act of arranging a particular set of facts in the Britannica gives an author a kind of power. To many people, the Britannica is gospel. By virtue of appearing between the familiar black covers, the author's interpretation becomes fact. It is a way to carve a certain intellectual authority, at least for a time.

New Essay on Freud

Martin Jay, professor of history at UC Berkeley, has contributed a new essay on Freud to the 1988 printing to replace a 20-year-old essay that emphasized life history over ideas. Jay is an authority on 19th-Century intellectual history, but not Freud in particular. He wondered at the invitation, but felt he could not miss "the opportunity to be cribbed by 10,000 high school students." With those students in mind, he sought to clarify complex terms, despite the space limitation, which he discovered is simply not negotiable at the Britannica.

Scientific knowledge has changed at least as dramatically as the arts since 1929, when the last edition was published. The editors invite working scientists such as MIT geologist Peter Molnar, whose article on Continental Landforms appears in the 1988 printing. Molnar has personally explored every major mountain range on earth. Less awed at the invitation than his humanist counterparts, Molnar undertook the task as a social responsibility and wrote in the same methodical manner he uses for reports and textbooks.

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