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The Joy of Alphabetization

Image result for aldous huxley

In the February issue of Harper's, in the "Easy Chair" column near the front, John Crowley has a column about the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in general about the fun of old-fashioned alphabetized reference books, the sort of thing we used for reference before we had cyberspace and wikipedia.

Given the alphabetized structure, Crowley writes, "any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter. It's impossible not to abstract something from some of them. Look up 'Dog' (Damascu to Educ) to study the attractive plates ... and you may notice the nearby entry for 'Dogger Bank' ('an extensive shoal in the North Sea') and the sea battle fought there on January 24, 1915, which you had not previously heard of." Indeed. That was and still is the fun of browsing through such works.

Soon Crumb is on to the sales tactics of the old-fashioned door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen.

But then his meandering essay brings us back to the alphabetization of the volumes, which he relates to a story about Aldous Huxley, imaged above. Huxley, you see, according to his friend Bertrand Russell, regularly reads from the Britannica, and it would be obvious from  his conversation which volume he had been imbibing. One day his talk would be of the Alps, Andes, and the Apennines, but the next he'd want to talk of the Himalayas and the Hippocratic Oath.

I'll end with that, evading Crowley's fancy talk of Borges. Bye.


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