Monday, October 01, 2012

REVIEW Pears Cyclopedia 2012-2013

Category: Reviews

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited”

The 2012-2013 edition of Pears Cyclopaedia is the first major revision in some time. It adds considerable heft to veteran chapters as well as re-introduces categories of knowledge from previous editions.

The “Chronicle of Events” is brought up to May 2012. The special topic in history this year is “Alamein and Montgomery.” The “Prominent People” section has been updated to include recent entries such as Obama and Mitt Romney. Steve Jobs, we are informed, passed away in 2011. The “Background to World Affairs” – a compilation of monographs about the history and societies of the regions of the globe - is indispensable: it is as updated as an online blog and as thorough as an encyclopedia. In conjunction with “The Historical World” it provides a comprehensive resource, with a separate chapter covering historic Britain and a special topic encompassing 50 years of archaeological discoveries.

“Britain Today” has been expanded to include a Who’s Who in British Politics and a glossary as well as treatment of the Royal Jubilee and the seemingly inexorable move towards Scottish independence. The “General Compendium” is a cornucopia of tables and data and delectable lists, some useful, some quaint (British monarchy, Prime Ministers since 1721, rules of the Roman world, US Presidents, Nobel Prize winners, new words, major literary prizes, Roman numerals, the Chinese calendar, foreign phrases, national currencies, the Greek alphabet, glossary of drinks, common legal terms, military anniversaries, famous ships, and current tax rates.)

The venerable and popular section “Myths and Legends” now covers not only Greece and Rome, but also Norse mythology. Pears provides a constantly-updated survey of “Ideas and Beliefs” throughout the centuries. The entry about the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, notes its decline in the past two decades and the fact that are now (2012) more Muslims in the world than Catholics. Regrettably, the Gazetteer of the British Isles is all that remains from the once excellent Atlas. It is followed by a much enlarged “General Information” gateway: a mini cyclopaedia with hundreds of listings pertaining to all fields of human knowledge, from astronomy and architecture to zoology.

To augment these magnificent offerings, Pears Cyclopaedia provides a “Literary Companion” (outline of English literature arranged as a chronological survey, replete with biographical and bibliographic entries); an “Introduction to Art and Architecture” (key terms, movements, and styles); “The World of Music” (outline historical narrative, glossary of musical terms, and index to composers); “The Cinema” (its history and famous actors and directors as well as a glossary of key terms and list of Oscar winners).

A revamped section “Life and Leisure” now comprises “The World of Wine”, “The World of Dance”, and a special topic, “The Great Outdoors.” This is seamlessly followed by a “Sporting Almanac.” The astoundingly up-to-date “World of Science” proffers coverage of diverse fields such as astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and human evolution. It also comprises a variety of scientific tables. Medicine merits its own gateway, inevitably titled “Medical Matters”: the most common illnesses and conditions, some of them treated to in-depth analyses within special topics. A subject index caps this wondrous work of reference.

The Cyclopaedia is kept astoundingly up to date by a dedicated team of 30 or so scholar-contributors, headed by the indefatigable polymath, Dr. Chris Cook. “Affection” and “attachment” are terms rarely used in a review of a reference title, but, they are the ones that come to my mind as I contemplate the new (2012-2013) edition of Pears Cyclopaedia, one of many editions I possess. I confess to my addiction proudly: control freak that I am, I like to hold the Universe of Knowledge in the palm of my hand, in a manageable, pocket-sized form.

What renders this single volume unique is not that it is a cornucopia of facts (which it is, abundantly and lavishly so), but that it arranges them lovingly in patterns and narratives and, thus, endows them with sense and sensibility. It is at once an erudite friend, a mischievous iconoclast, a legend to our times, the sum total of human knowledge in a rich variety of fields, and a treasure-trove of trivia and miscellany. It is as compellingly readable as the best non-fiction, as comprehensive as you need it to be, and as diverting as a parlour game. It is both quaint and modern in the best senses of these loaded words.

Pears Cyclopaedia is a labour of love and it shows. Its current editor (formerly its Assistant Editor), Christopher Cook, has been at it for decades now. Annually, he springs a delicious surprise on the avid cult that is the readership of Pears Cyclopaedia: new topics that range from wine connoisseurship to gardening. This edition is not an exception, though the surprises are within the chapters.

At more than 1000 pages, Pears Cyclopaedia is a bargain. Alas, its distribution leaves something to be desired. I have spent the better part of a long afternoon searching for it in vain in London’s bookshops. Last time I had it ordered in Europe, I waited for months on end for its arrival. It is also not exactly au courant on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It should be. Pears Cyclopaedia is wonderful, in the true meaning of this word: it is full of wonders and, therefore, is itself a wonder.

DISCLAIMER: I have purchased every single edition of Pears Cyclopaedia that I possess, except the last three, which were provided to me, as review copies, courtesy Penguin/Alan Lane.