When in a Pinch, Look to Diderot’s Encyclopedia

Enlightening the World

For the last two weeks, I’ve been experiencing increasingly annoying pain in my right arm. This all began after spending many consecutive hours at my computer, sitting on a wooden chair that belonged to my grandfather, working on my Evangeline post. Anyway, this week, I started waking up with excruciating pain in my upper back. Yesterday, I saw a doctor who believes I probably have a pinched nerve in my neck. This is not the post that I’d intended to write, but I didn’t want to enter radio silence. So, I’ve picked a favorite but shorter subject, a review of Enlightening the World, Encyclopédie, the Book that Changed the Course of History, by Philipp Blom.

Anatomy page
Page from Diderot’s Encyclopédie

In searching for an image that might convey what my week has been like, I came across a page from Diderot’s Encyclopedia (shown at right). It perfectly represents how I’ve felt since Monday. Once I stumbled upon that etching, I knew what I could write about. Enlightening the World is one of my absolute favorite books. It’s the true story of Dennis Diderot’s 26+ year effort to assemble the most extensive encyclopedia in history. His work began in 1746 and aimed to create as many volumes as necessary to describe all available human knowledge at that time.

There were many contributors to what became a 28 volume set—17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of illustrative plates. In total, the massive tomes contained 76+ thousand entries representing roughly 21 million words. D’Alembert is credited as Diderot’s co-editor. He also wrote many of the articles relating to mathematics and mechanics. His contribution is unquestionably impressive but it pales in comparison to that of Diderot who oversaw the project from start to finish and dealt with myriad obstacles along the way. The gallery below shows a minuscule sampling of pages. Click on an image if you’d like to zoom in.

Imagine the coordination that was necessary to create such a work. All correspondence was done by hand. Engravers had to etch every illustration and page of text. When proofreaders found errors, or technologies advanced, or discoveries were made, the corresponding pages had to be redone. I love the picture of the giraffe above. I’m guessing the artist for this one had never seen an actual giraffe. Especially not a baby giraffe.

In the midst of this herculean task, Diderot had to navigate the delicate political environment of the day, trying to placate both the King and the Catholic Church. These powerful institutions each had reservations about disseminating knowledge to the average citizen. Doing so might potentially threaten their grasp on power. Indeed, Diderot was often under police surveillance and at one point he was sentenced and incarcerated in the prison of Vincennes.

One of Diderot’s most remarkable achievements was that he built and maintained a master index that itemized all of the articles and illustrations. There he noted the volume and page number for every single entry. In my early days of writing software documentation, I used a typesetting notation called Postscript to create indexes. This was relatively time-consuming compared to the automated indexing provided by today’s publishing software. But, compared to Diderot’s labor, Postscript was a breeze.

Anyway, that’s it for this week. If you have any knowledge you’d like to share about either Diderot’s encyclopédie or pinched nerves, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

14 Comments

  1. Fascinating! I’m sorry your nerve is pinched, but you’ve expanded my mind and given me a welcome new book suggestion.

    Hope your pain eases quickly.

    Cheers,
    Annie

  2. This would be a remarkable accomplishment even with modern technology. I hope there are still plenty of copies in existence. A priceless guide to the state of human knowledge at that time.

    Some problems don’t change. To this day, political and religious authorities tend to be uncomfortable with certain kinds of knowledge being disseminated too widely.

    I hope your doctor can do something about that pinched nerve. Continuing pain is really debilitating.

    • There are still quite a few copies that were printed in the 1700s. For a time, the encyclopedia was banned in France. But counterfeiters in Italy and the Netherlands were able to produce precise replicas. I got to flip through the pages of one of those ancient Italian reproductions. It was a mind blowing experience and a moment when I felt extraordinarily privileged to be given the opportunity. Thanks for the well wishes.

  3. Your blog is interesting … Congratulations

  4. Emma @ Words And Peace

    Really neat, thanks for sharing. I hope the pinch is gone

  5. It’s alway good to read the appreciation for work that went into the foundations of our knowledge. The shoulders we stand on! BTW, I’m experiencing what I think is the exact same upper spine pain recently.

  6. I have a friend with a pinched nerve in her neck right now. Is this another specialty from the Covid year? I hope you are back to yourself soon. It’s no fun.

    • Thanks Suzanne. Since Covid, I started blogging regularly and stopped exercising regularly. Probably a bad plan to significantly increase my time at a computer while letting my upper body atrophy. I’m hoping physical therapy will help a lot.

  7. Diderot and d’Alembert are often overlooked when one thinks of “les Lumières”. They played a major role…
    I hope your neck/back gets better. The best option is to find a good therapist (there are many bad ones) to teach you daily exercises routines… Best option. (Avoid chiropractors, surgeons and the like)

  8. I have spent some time in Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique which was published (I believe) before Diderot’s Encyclopedia. I am astounded by the intellect and entrepenurialship of both Voltaire and Diderot as this format had not been previously published. Unfortunately, the British capitalized on this idea and published their own version, the Britannica, in 1768
    which continues to be recognized as the “first encyclopedia”. Regardless- these works opened the world to knowledge that previously had been reserved only for academics. Have you read “The Meaning of Everything” about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary? It is quite fascinating as well!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.