Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…

Hume's Cutlery

David Hume is renowned for two pieces of cutlery, the guillotine and the fork.

Hume's guillotine is the sharp cut he makes between "is" statements and "ought" statements, to make the point that the former never ground the latter.

His "fork" is the division between what later came to be called "analytic" and "synthetic" statements, with the ominous observation that any books containing statements that cannot be assigned to one or the other prong should be burnt.

Actually, I should acknowledge that there is some dispute as to how well or poorly the dichotomy Hume outlines really maps onto the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. Some writers maintain that Hume meant something quite different and has been hijacked. Personally, I've never seen the alleged difference however hard they've worked to point it out to me.

The guillotine makes for a more dramatic graphic than a mere fork, hence the bit of clip art above.

I'm curious whe…