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Jorge Luis Borges on why encyclopedias (or encyclopaedias)

The book I brought to read at night and on the drive to and from Toronto (when Amy takes the wheel) has nothing to do with Asia, or China. It’s The Writer’s Chapbook, a collection of pieces drawn from Paris Review interviews, with an introduction by the editor, George Plimpton. I opened it to a wonderful passage from an interview with Jorge Luis Borges that gives me a new vision for the encyclopedias I create at Berkshire – a vision that is completely 21-st century, you’ll be relieved to hear. Certainly my children will be pleased to hear that I’m not proposing that we go back to index cards in the quest for quality and authenticity. Here’s what Borges has to say (do note his mention of Mormons – I liked this because we’ve just published The Little Book of Mormon, created from Berkshire encyclopedia articles):

I remember a time when I used to come here to read. I was a very young man, and I was far too timid to ask for a book. Then I was rather, I won’t say poor, but I wasn’t too wealthy in those days—so I used to come every night here and pick out a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the old edition.


The eleventh?


The eleventh or twelfth because those editions are far above the new ones. They were meant to be read. Now they are merely reference books. While in the eleventh or twelfth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, you had long articles by Macaulay, by Coleridge; no, not by Coleridge by . . .


By De Quincey?


Yes, by De Quincey, and so on. So that I used to take any volume from the shelves—there was no need to ask for them: They were reference books—and then I opened the book till I found an article that interested me, for example, about the Mormons or about any particular writer. I sat down and read it because those articles were really monographs, really books or short books. The same goes for the German encyclopedias—Brockhaus or Meyers. When we got the new copy, I thought that was what they call the The Baby Brockhaus, but it wasn’t. It was explained to me that because people live in small flats there is no longer room for books in thirty volumes. Encyclopedias have suffered greatly; they have been packed in.

From the Paris Review.

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