Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Pears Cyclopedia 2013-4 Edition

Category: Reviews

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

I keep being astounded by the extent to which this one volume cyclopaedia is maintained meticulously up to date by a dedicated team of scholar-contributors, headed by the indefatigable polymath, Dr. Chris Cook. Hundreds of entries in dozens of sections reflect the latest developments and knowledge in numerous areas of life.
The 2012-2013 edition of Pears Cyclopaedia was the first major revision in some time. It added considerable heft to veteran chapters as well as re-introduced categories of knowledge from previous editions. This 2013-4 edition follows in its footsteps and is augmented with a Biblical Glossary.

The “Chronicle of Events” is brought up to February 2013. The “Prominent People” section has been updated to include, for instance, Obama’s re-election “narrow but decisive” victory and Thatcher’s passing away.  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 the History and Development of the European Union.

“Britain Today” has been completely re-written to include a Who’s Who in British Politics and a glossary as well as an overview of the British constitution and system of government. The “General Compendium” is a cornucopia of tables and data and delectable lists, some useful, some quaint: English and Scottish monarchs, the order of succession, Prime Ministers since 1721, US Presidents, Popes since 1800, Archbishops of Canterbury and York, traditional ranks in the armed forces, Roman rulers and towns, national currencies, the international time-table, Nobel Prize winners, new words, major literary prizes, Roman numerals, the Chinese and Hindu calendars, foreign phrases, the Greek alphabet, famous ships, glossary of drinks, coffee and tea, common legal terms, military anniversaries, signs of the zodiac, the current tax rates, and much much more besides.

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 Christianity, for example, notes the persecution that Christians face in many countries, with a detailed list of these in toe. 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. The entries are scrupulously au courant: under “Television” one learns about the next trend: UHDTV.

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 up to and including 2012).

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 “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.

“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 (2013-2014) 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 available 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 four, which were provided to me, as review copies, courtesy Penguin/Alan Lane.