How to become a walking encyclopedia
A recent notice in the San Francisco Chronicle caused me to visit what was described as a "mecca for second-hand books and magazines at bargain prices" - Macdonald's Bookshop in San Francisco. What I was looking for was some recent (last
half-century) equivalent of a self-help magazine published during the last century, Self Culture. To my deep regret I could not find anything similar.
[quoteright]The first issue of Self Culture appeared in April, 1895. The subheading reads: "A Magazine of Knowledge, With Departments Devoted to the Interests of the Home University League." Although the Werner Company (Akron, Ohio) invited subscriptions from the general public, the magazine was intended primarily for owners of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, from whose ranks the Home University League was recruited. And if its readers lacked normal education, at least Self Culture strove valiantly to remedy the defect.
My copy of the October, 1897, issue is typical. Its second article reproduces some seventeenth century correspondence between John Winthrop (governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) and his wife. He is visiting London, his opinion of which sounds a lot like certain TV evangelists today:
"All Artes & Trades are carried on in that deceiptfull and unrighteous course, as it is almost impossible for a good & righteous man to mainetayne his charge and liue comfortablie in any of them. The ffountaines of Learning and Religion are corrupted."
An excerpt from an address by the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, J. P. Lesley, strikes a similar note. Apparently scandals about scientists "cooking" their data are nothing new:
"...What ridiculous and pitiable creations are these! - an authority in physics who cannot speak the truth? a leader in natural history who is given over to the torments of envy? a god in chemical research sick of some false quotation? a youthful prodigy in mathematical science tottering with unelastic steps and outstretched arms to grasp his future fame? Yet no one will deny that the intemperate pursuit of any branch of science has a tendency to produce such characters, by elevating to undue importance the individual accumulation of scientific facts and scientific theories, to the neglect and depreciation of that spirit of truth which alone can inspire and justify an earnest study of the material universe."
Immediately following Lesley's blast at scientific ambition is a short exhortation for the students of the Home University League, which sounds like the regimen that Auntie Mame prescribed for her nephew. They are urged to carry a notebook at all times and to jot down the titles of any good pictures they see, allusions in literature they don't understand, and so on. They can then use the long fall and winter evenings to look up the artist, research the allusions, etc. The author, E. A. Selkirk, continues with some cautionary advice:
"Many distractions - among them of late is the bicycling craze - are, I am aware, causing a diminution of the reading habit. I am not sure that I altogether regret it, for, really, so much trash has of late been sifted through the minds of our young people - yes, and older people, too - that, in too many cases, the poor sieves themselves will never be much good again...
"Observe what stand your author takes on the great moral questions of the day. Is his heroine so lovely and so fascinating that she commands your whole sympathy and admiration, and yet, at the same time, is she false in word and false in life and conduct; and directly the opposite of what you have always considered good and womanly? If so, shun the author. He will do you harm. If again you find your author habitually making his mean men Sabbath school teachers or superintendants, and his most contemptible characters church members, while his manly, noble fellows drink and swear and gamble, throw his books aside even if they delight you. The more charming they are, the worse they are. And this, no matter who or how popular the author may be. God is in His heavens, beholding the works of men. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, no matter how covered, or clothed upon with the color or drapery of beautiful, graceful language."
Since the Britannica did not publish an annual yearbook in those days, the editors of Self Culture felt obliged to update the Ninth Edition, published twenty years earlier. Simon Newcomb, for example, contributed an article on "Recent Astronomical Discovery." Even in 1897, the more competent astronomers were questioning the existence of "canals" on mars:
"...the latest paper by Barnard indicates that with the finest seeing ever available at Mt. Hamilton, and the great advantage of the 36-inch telescope, the surface of Mars appears entirely different from the drawings of Schiaparelli and others. What the latter describe as fine lines he then saw as irregular, hazy streaks."
Newcomb goes on to point out that there is no water vapor in the Martian atmosphere. A summary of the facts known then about the period of rotation of Venus makes it clear why this determination had to wait another three-quarters of a century.
Three pages of the October, 1897, issue are devoted to a summary of "Events of the Month." Following that is a section on "Inquiries Answered." The questions sent in by readers covered the widest possible range, from preserving blossoms of the Night-Blooming Cereus to the opportunities for gold-mining in Peru. Gold fever ran high in those days, and another reader was sternly dissuaded from setting out at once for the Klondike, in view of "the probable discomfort and possible distress of the coming winter."
In a section titled "New Information Notes" we find presentiments of the Atomic Age:
"A very interesting and novel experiment was shown (during a lecture by Lord Kelvin). A plate of uranium was connected at one terminal to an electrometer, and was then touched by a plate of aluminum. It was seen by the deflection of the spot of light (from the electrometer) that the uranium plate became at first positively electrified; it then gradually lost its charge and became negatively electrified. Lord Kelvin could suggest no explanation for this mysterious experiment. Another interesting topic touched upon was Becquerel's discovery of the radiation given off by uranium. This radiation is very feeble, but photographs of coins, etc., taken by its means were thrown on the screen. He stated that it has been conclusively established that this radiation was not due to phosphorescence, or the slow radiation of light previously absorbed, yet he could give no explanation of it."
Finally, each issue of Self Culture wound up with a page of questions to be researched by the self-improving reader, complete with page references to the parts of the Encyclopedia Britannica where the answers could be found. These questions ranged from the meaning of the word "anachronism" to the composition of the peat-beds of the Falkland Islands. There was a question for each day of the month, but the busy reader was reassured that finding the answer "will seldom require more than one hour." It is hard to deny that any reader who actually spent 365 hours a year delving after these topics would, as the publishers claimed, gain "the possession of a large and varied stock of general information."
Regular contributor Paul W. Healy has departed for London with a collection of back issues of this magazine under his arm, for distribution to the heathen. We are happy for this opportunity to spread out light into literary backwaters.
More Articles by Paul W. Healy
Title:E-mail Print to PDF Blog
We have collected the essential data you need to easily include this page on your blog. Just click and copy!close