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.
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.