I Could Restart Western Civilization

I could restart Western Civilization all by myself, if I needed to, or wanted to, although eventually I might need some assistance.

I can say this because I have the 29-volume 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the famed Eleventh Edition, part of the large trove of books we took with us when we moved to a log cabin in northern British Columbia when I was a boy.  I think my father insisted on tracking down this edition of the Britannica at a Washington State bookseller’s when he was planning our move to the north.  This was at the height of the Cold War.  He anticipated that there might be widespread nuclear havoc someday, so these books were part of our survival gear along with US government texts on radiation poisoning and books on how to store food for long periods.

My father, an ex-Marine, was greatly inspired by Bradford Angier and his books such as How to Stay Alive in the Woods and How to Build Your Home in the Woods.  Angier was a one-man (or I should say with his wife Vena, a one-couple) back-to-the-land movement well before those ideas really took off with my generation in the 60s and early 70s.

Originally a journalist, Angier and his wife lived in British Columbia for a time in the Peace River country in the northeastern part of the province, leading the life he wrote about.  Eventually the building of a dam on the Peace River disrupted their lives and they returned to the USA.

Angier’s books inspired my father greatly — we had many of them around the cabin even well after my father died from a stroke a couple of years later.  But fuelled by them and by his own interest in prospecting for gold, he took us north in the early 1960s, determined to be self-sufficient and to find his own way.  I remember the one-man gold dredge on pontoons painted brick red with a Briggs & Stratton gas engine he ordered from California to take with us north.  I also remember the first fall we spent in northern BC:  how proud he was to shoot a bear making a mess of the neighbour’s oat field.  I remember our first taste of grain-fed bear meat (surprisingly good). 

We might be back-to-the-landers, but my parents loved books.  We brought with us boxes and boxes of hardcover classics, how-to books and children’s books, all to be stored in a one-room cabin, although the cabin soon came to be added upon.  There was even the occasional verboten book to be hidden away, unsuccessfully, from us three brothers:  I recall my father kept the book Kill or Get Killed by Rex Applegate, a guide on close combat, secreted away, and my mother in later years kept Lady Chatterley’s Lovers squirreled away in a clothes drawer.

But the pride of place, displayed proudly on battered wooden shelves, went to the Eleventh Edition Encyclopedia Britannica.

I read articles about Swold, Battle of, the most famous of the sea-fights of the ancient Norsemen in the year 1000 A.D., of Taurobolium, the sacrifice of a bull in worship of the Great Mother of the Gods, and its first known occurrence in A.D. 134 in Italy, and under the Flag article learned the following: “The rank of knights bannerets was higher than that of ordinary knights, and they could be created on the field of battle only.  To create a knight banneret, the king … in person tore off the fly of the pennon on the lance of the knight, thus turning it roughly into the square flag or banner… .”  Read during long winter nights by the steady but dim yellow light of kerosene lanterns, this was exciting stuff to a boy!

EC0A763But the feeling of truly marvelous was reserved for incredibly detailed diagrams of mysterious machines and mechanisms, engines and turbines, all in tiny tight diagrams on the onionskin paper.

 For example, this article on Founding, details the process of casting metal, in which the art of moulding patterns in forms of sand is examined at some length.  This may be one of those projects in restarting where some considerable skilled knowledge beyond my own may be necessary.

Although the Eleventh Edition is widely considered to display the breadth of knowledge at the height of the British Empire, there is considerable American influence as well in this edition.

Its editors called it “a fresh survey of the whole field of human thought and achievement, written by some 1500 eminent specialists drawn from nearly every country of the civilized world, incorporating the results of research and the progress of events up to the middle of 1910.”

Many articles were written by the best known scholars and academics of the day, including Prince Peter Kropotkin, John Muir, T.H. Huxley and Algernon Charles Swinburne, and the occasional lesser lights who would later become more famous such as Bertrand Russell.

This was a time when most of the world was still ruled by kings and queens and emperors.  The two World Wars hadn’t happened yet, and the Wright Brothers had just got off the ground.  The Rolling Stones wouldn’t be around for a few years yet…

256px-EncycBrit1913 The volumes are not perfect of course.  Ethnic and racial slurs typical of the time can be found.  Despite that, its ambition and optimism are charming, to bring “all extant knowledge within the reach of every class of reader.”

The Eleventh Edition is no longer under copyright.  You can find it in various forms on the Web, often in text only.  

However, at this site all 29 volumes in scanned TIFF format are available.  They require, for most browsers, a special TIFF viewer.


Explore posts in the same categories: Book Review, Culture, Remembering

4 Comments on “I Could Restart Western Civilization”

  1. forestrat Says:

    I thought I was the only kid that actually sat around reading encyclopedias!

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    There sometimes wasn’t a lot else to do, so when bored, browse an encyclopedia.

    And then I found so many interesting and odd things…


  3. qazse Says:

    Fencer, I am still convinced your past is your future. Sure there have been others who have had as rare an upbringing as you. But I would venture to guess that none are as well read and articulate as you.

    I’m back on line with my own computer. I have a lot of catching up to do…


  4. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    Well, thanks. And nice to hear you’re back in computer land…

    I didn’t really comprehend until I started writing about it here and there how unusual my growing up was in many ways… took it for granted in the way of the young.


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