Some books must be re-read…

I’m currently reading a book that I have a great deal of affection for. I’ve read it before and it became one of my favourite books on first read. But reading it again a few years later, I find that I’m going a lot more slowly and I’m better able to appreciate the quality of the writing, the cadence of the words and the beauty and elegance of the writer’s thoughts. I thought he was wise before, but now I feel like I’m finding an insight in every other paragraph.

The book is an old one, written in the early years of the last century by a gentleman who went by the pen name of David Grayson. It is called  Adventures in Contentment. It is a memoir, an account of a young man who left the life and the busyness of the city behind and found his joy on a farm. This is the theme of hundreds of memoirs that have come out since, but David Grayson is one of the originals.

This book is a vivid account of his experiences and a thoughtful examination of his life. It is insightful in the way that every now and then, it makes me stop and think, re-read what I have just read and think some more. His prose is luminous, the kind that has me highlighting passages on every page and adding comments almost as often. I’m reading the digital version of this book, so I feel free to highlight and comment to my heart’s content.

Here’s a sample.

“One morning I wakened with a strange, new joy in my soul. It came to me at that moment with indescribable poignancy, the thought of walking barefoot in cool, fresh plow furrows as I had once done when a boy. So vividly the memory came to me–the high airy world as it was at that moment, and the boy I was walking free in the furrows–that the weak tears filled my eyes, the first I had shed in many years. Then I thought of sitting in quiet thickets in old fence corners, the wood behind me rising still, cool, mysterious, and the fields in front stretching away in illimitable pleasantness. I thought of the good smell of cows at milking–you do not know, if you do not know!–I thought of the sights and sounds, the heat and sweat of the hay fields. I thought of a certain brook I knew when a boy, that flowed among alders and wild parsnips, where I waded with a three-foot rod for trout. I thought of all these things as a man thinks of his first love. Oh, I craved the soil. I hungered and thirsted for the earth. I was greedy for growing things.”

I love this passage. Particularly that last line. “I was greedy for growing things.” It expresses so well that need to be in a place that is green, where things grow and life can be lived the way it was meant to be, slowly, deliberately, thoughtfully.

The book is full of gems like this and well worth a read. This is book is now old enough to be in the public domain and the version that I’m reading is the digital version created by Project Gutenberg so it will be easy to find for those of you who might want to go ahead and read it.

The odd shelf

This is an expression that I have borrowed from Anne Fadiman and from her book, Ex Libris. One of the essays in this book is called ‘My Odd Shelf’ and in it, Fadiman says,

“It has long been my belief that everyone’s library contains an Odd Shelf. On this shelf rests an odd, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which upon closer inspection reveals a good deal about its owner...My own Odd Shelf holds sixty-four books about polar exploration: expedition narratives, journals, collections of photographs, works of natural history and naval manuals…”

I have an Odd Shelf too. It is made up of books about Scotland, the rich, heroic and often tragic history, the gorgeous landscapes, the people, the culture, the whisky…Most of these books are memoirs, personal accounts and travelogues. There’s history, historical fiction and social history as well. Within this collection sits another collection of books about The Hebrides, a group of islands to the west of the Scottish mainland.

I have long been fascinated by islands. There is something quite wonderful about the idea of living on an island, isolated, set apart, exposed to the whims of wind and sea. The Hebrides are a particularly fascinating set of islands. They’re utterly beautiful with the kind of light and colour that seems unreal, almost. There are no trees on these islands, so the landscape is flat and unless there are hills around, there’s nothing but the land, the sky and the sea…

These islands have a rich history and culture going back hundreds of years. The people in these islands were rarely rich in the economic sense. Life was always a struggle and yet they rose above it and created a wealth of stories, songs and poetry, music and dance that they passed down from one generation to the next.

None of this was ever written down. Every generation simply learnt the songs and the stories, remembered them and kept them alive by telling the stories and singing the songs. It was an oral tradition that was preserved intact for hundreds of years.

A lot of this has now been written down and recorded because of an effort on the part of individuals as well as institutions over the last hundred or so years to preserve what might otherwise have been lost….

This is an interest that feeds on itself, I find. The more I read about The Hebrides, the more I want to know. So I buy more books and my collection grows. Fadiman goes on to say, “My interest is lonely one. I cannot trot it out at cocktail parties. I feel sometimes as if I have spent a large part of my life learning a dead language that no one I know can speak.”

My interest in not as lonely as hers. Scotland is interesting to lots of people and there are so many books that have been written about The Hebrides that it is obvious that my obsession is not a singular one.

Still, it might seem strange to have what feels like an endless fascination with a group of islands in the Atlantic, but I say why not? If there can be scholars who are experts on Beowulf and historians who spend years reading researching and collecting every tiny detail about Ancient Greece or the first world war, I can certainly dedicate a chunk of my life and my shelf space to books about a group of islands which many have described as God’s finest creation.

When was the last time you read a book in one sitting?

Or even in the course of a day? I used to do this often as a kid. Start reading a book on a Sunday afternoon and finish it that night. As a teen, I would often pick a book after dinner and stay up most of the night to finish it. It was wonderful because it was such an immersive reading experience, particularly when I was reading at night. There was nothing and no one to distract me and it was possible to disappear entirely into the world of the book that I was reading.

It is nearly impossible to find the time to do this as an adult. I read every day, an hour or so at a time, but the kind of immersion that goes into reading a book from start to finish in one go, that is something I have not experienced for years.

The last time I read a book in one sitting was nine, maybe ten years ago. It was sometime in May. I was visiting my parents. My kids were very young at the time and I used to struggle to find time for myself.

I was sorting through some books and I picked up I Feel Bad About my Neck by Nora Ephron. This is a collection of personal essays, all very engaging and written with the warmth, humour and the sarcastic wit that is so much a part of Nora Ephron’s writing and her film making.

I opened the book with the intention of reading one essay. Four hours later, I emerged from the book…it was such a wonderful experience. I’d sat on that couch all afternoon, lost to the world, oblivious to the heat, reading peacefully as life went on around me.

I have tried to recreate this experience a few times since, with the 24 in 48 readathon which is an initiative aimed at encouraging this kind of immersive reading. The idea is to set a weekend aside for reading and plan things so that you can get by doing the bare mumimum of work for that time and to read as much as you can, for 24 hours out of 48 if possible.

I’ve done the readathon thrice and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I didn’t end up reading a book in a single setting any one of those times. The closest I came to that was reading The Truth by Terry Pratchett over the course of fifteen hours spread over two days. Being in quarantine might be a good time to try this again.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

This is one of those books that I read and then wondered why I had waited so long to read it. It is a story that gets going from the first word and the world building is effortless, almost. Neil Gaiman takes you deep into the world of this book in less than three pages.

The book does not slow down or drag at any point and it never feels rushed. The pacing is just right and the writing is beautiful.

As for the story, it begins in the village of Wall, somewhere in England. It is a fairly ordinary village with fairly ordinary people. There is a long wall at one end of the village which separates all these ordinary folk from the magical folk who live in different places beyond the wall.

The protagonist is young Tristran Thorn who believes himself to be in love with a girl from the village called Victoria Forester. In order to win her, he promises to find a fallen star and bring it to her. This promise sends him over the ancient wall and into a magical world that is enchanting, strange, fraught with danger and full of adventure.

He does find the fallen star and that immediately makes him a target because there are all sorts of poweful people seeking that fallen star which he now has to protect…

The story is a romp from start to finish. And it is told very deftly. The depth and sweep of the tale suggest a much longer book than it is at less than 300 pages. This is a book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

Trivia : Scrabble

The game of Scrabble was invented during the great depression by an out of work architect named Alfred M Butts. He had to do something to keep himself occupied, so he decided to invent a board game for adults.

Working in his fifth floor apartment in Queens, he designed the new game to be based on knowledge, strategy and chance. He lined the original playing board into small squares and cut the 100 lettered wooden tiles by hand.

The hardest part of developing the game was assigning point values for each of the letters. To figure out how best to do this, he went methodically through the dictionary and several popular newspapers and counted by hand the frequency of letter usage.

Although Mr. Butts had invented a word game, he was stumped when he tried to give it a name. He tried Lexiko and Criss Cross Words but it was obvious that neither of those names worked.

He had trouble selling the game to major board game companies. Although its sales eventually approached 100 million sets, Scrabble languished for nearly two decades, rejected by major game manufacturers as unmarketable.

The game was nothing more than a novelty for a few friends until one of them, James Brunot, volunteered to make and sell the game. He set up a small operation in 1948 and he was the one who came up with the name, Scrabble. Despite his best efforts, the game did not become popular.

And then in 1952, a Macy’s executive saw Scrabble played at a resort. He liked it and he thought it would sell. So the world’s largest store began to stock and showcase Scrabble games. Soon enough, it became popular and orders started pouring in.

For many years Mr. Butts earned royalties, which he said were about three cents a set. “One-third went to taxes,” he said. “I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life.”

Scrabble has been beloved by many writers, including Vladimir Nabokov, who had a special Russian version made for him and his wife. And now, of course, Scrabble is available on most mobile phones in several different languages.


The Writer’s Almanac

Article in the New York Times dated April 7th, 1993 written by Bruce Lambert

Book recommendation : Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin.

This is by far one of the best travel books that I have ever read. It is, of course, based on Jules Verne’s novel of the same name. Verne’s hero was a fictional character going on a fictional journey which Michael Palin replicated as closely as he could, 115 years after Phileus Fogg. Palin’s Passepartout was made up of a television crew from the BBC.

He set off from the Reform Club in London, just like Phileous Fogg and he tried to make the journey around the world and get back in 80 days. Spoiler alert : he succeeded. But that obviously wasn’t the point of the journey. The point was to travel, it was to see the world in all its wonderful variety, meet some interesting people and if only briefly, experience the different countries and cultures of this world.

As he says in the introduction, “The reason why Phileas Fogg’s 80 day journey retains its appeal is that it is still the minimum time needed to go around the world and notice it. To see it, smell it and touch it at the same time.” This book is a diary that Michael Palin kept as he went around the world by rail and by sea. While this can be seen as a companion to the TV series, I think it stands very well on it’s own.

This book was published in 1989. So much about the world has changed in the years since then. But this book still has value because it belongs to a point in time and can be read as such. What makes the TV series as well as the book so special is the writer himself. Michael Palin is charming and friendly, he’s curious about the world and open-hearted in the way he approaches and relates to all the people that he encounters. He writes about all his experiences with a great deal of warmth and without any artifice. This book is an adventure in armchair travel that is well worth experiencing.

Bookish thoughts: Neil Gaiman

“Don’t ever apologise to an author for buying something in paperback, or taking it out from a library (that’s what they’re there for. Use your library). Don’t apologise to this author for buying books second hand, or getting them from bookcrossing or borrowing a friend’s copy. What’s important to me is that people read the books and enjoy them, and that, at some point in there, the book was bought by someone. And that people who like things, tell other people. The most important thing is that people read…”

– Neil Gaiman

Book recommendation: Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

There is nothing more fun, at least for me, than reading a book that is about books and reading and Ex Libris is one of the best examples of this genre. The book is actually titled Ex Libris : Confessions of a Common Reader and that is exactly what it is…a collection of essays on a variety of bookish subjects.

It starts with what is probably my favourite essay in this collection called Merging Libraries and it about Anne and her husband George and their personal book collections merging to create a single library. After ten years of being together and five years of marriage they finally decide to let their books mingle. It is a charming essay and it sets the tone for what is a wonderful collection.

She goes on to talk about a love of words, inscriptions on the fly leaf, the way we treat books, reading together, sharing a love of books with our children, how we organize our bookshelves and so on. She ends with another lovely essay about second-hand bookshops and people like her (and me) who find some of life’s greatest happiness in wandering about a second hand bookshop, looking for hidden treasures.

This is a wonderful book, it is very well written and it will bring joy to any book lover’s heart.

Recommending books

It is the nature of bookish people to want to talk about the books that we’re reading. And we do. We mention it to a friend in passing, we tweet about it or we add it to our currently reading shelf on goodreads. But every now and then, a book comes along that is so good that mentioning it is not good enough.

We want to gush about this book that has temporarily taken over our minds and our lives. We want everyone we know to read it. And if they do read it, if they love it, that is the best feeling in the world. Because a book that good should be read and experienced by as many people as possible and the writer should get a whole lot of love and hopefully, encouragement to keep writing.

On reading : Alan Bennett

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Alan Bennett -The History Boys

Reading Tolkien

One of the questions I like to ask people when the subject of Tolkien comes up, is “What was your first experience of Tolkien?” “How old were you when you first read the books?” I will answer these questions here and if any of you want to chime in and tell me about your experience of Tolkien, please do. Though I guess, it is only fair to add a third question…“Did you read the books first or did you watch the movies before you read the books?” I realise that there is now a whole generation of people who probably saw the movies first.

My first encounter with Tolkien was when I was eighteen or nineteen years old. I was at the local British Council Library one day, when I ran into a friend who was sitting at one of the tables reading the Lord of the Rings (the illustrated edition). This friend of mine loved Tolkien and he was surprised when I told him that I hadn’t read any of Tolkien’s books. Like a true enthusiast, he launched into all the reasons why I should read Tolkien and then he gave me The Silmarillion, telling me that I should ideally start with that.

I had no idea about middle earth and no clue what the stories were actually about. I went home and I started reading The Silmarillion and…I couldn’t get into it. I tried, but I found it boring and I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything that was happening in the book. After a couple of chapters, I gave up both on The Silmarillion and on Tolkien.  A few years later, I had a similar “You haven’t read Tolkien?!” conversation with my husband. I told him that I’d tried and that I’d got bored. He was incredulous until I explained that I’d started with The Silmarillion. 

“That is technically the beginning, but that is not the right book to start with, not if you want to get invested in the books,” was his opinion. He thought for a minute and then he gave me The Fellowship of the Ring. He didn’t say so at the time, but I think he was afraid that if he gave me The Hobbit to start with, I might give up on Tolkien again. Another reason , of course, was the fact that this was in February 2002, just a month or so before the first Lord of the Rings movie was released. My husband had just re-read The Fellowship of the Ring in anticipation of the movie and he’d talked so much about Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings by this point that I really wanted to read the book and I definitely wanted to do it before watching the movie.

bag end

I started reading it and by the end of the first chapter, I was enchanted. Then I read chapter two, The Shadow of the past…I was hooked and torn between tearing through the book because I wanted to know what was going to happen and slowing down and savouring it because it is so beautifully written. I ended up doing a bit of both because I did have a deadline to meet, March 15th, 2002, the day the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring was released. I finished reading the book a couple of days before I saw the movie, so my head was full of Tolkien’s words when I went to see it.

I’m not going to talk much about the movie here except to say that the casting is consistently wonderful, the music is exceptional and the sets and locations are outstanding. These things in particular were important to me as a reader because while Tolkien’s words were enough for me to build an image of the characters and of the places in middle earth in my head, the film gave my imagination a clarity and a focus which genuinely enhanced my experience of reading The Two Towers and The Return of the King. 

I’ve read The Hobbit since and I’ve re-read The Lord of the Rings twice. I’ve read parts of The Unfinished Tales as well, but I have not gone back to The Silmarillion. I think I will give it another go now. I might just do the read-along with The Prancing Pony Podcast that I wrote about yesterday. I listened to the episode about the first chapter of The Silmarillion today and it was lovely. There is clearly a lot in the text that is wonderful and I just might be able to appreciate it now that I’m older and now that I know and love middle earth as much as I do.

The Prancing Pony : A bookish and somewhat Tookish podcast

I was looking through my podcast app recently, just browsing, when I came across something interesting. It’s called The Prancing Pony Podcast and it is , obviously a podcast related to Tolkien and his work.


It is hosted by Alan Sisto and Shawn Marchese, who refuse to call themselves fans, because they’re not fanatics, but they are admirers of the Professor and his works. They love the books, the languages, the mythology and all of the background material including the various Tolkien biographies that exist.

It was clear around ten minutes into episode one that the two hosts are word nerds and that they engage in the kind of deep reading and deep thinking about everything that Tolkien wrote that shows a far greater engagement than the average reader.

They’ve clearly read the books, the poems, the essays and everything else that Tolkien wrote including the appendices, multiple times and they know what they are talking about. They gush over words and sentences, specific usages and the underlying meanings…it is quite wonderful to listen to, at least for me, because they’re talking about books, Tolkien’s books and doing it with such a clear knowledge and understanding of the world that Tolkien created.

The podcast is structured as a read-along, starting with one of Tolkien’s essays called On Fairy Stories and moving on to a poem called Mythopoeia, both of which are good, introductory texts before getting into the Silmarillian, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and going right on through all the books until The Unfinished Tales. And the read along goes chapter by chapter, not book by book. So that is a lot of podcasts. They are on episode number 145 now and they’ve journeyed up to The Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. 

Here they are in their own words.

“We are passionate Tolkien enthusiasts inviting listeners to enjoy our detailed exploration of Tolkien’s work, with smart but straightforward discussion and a heavy dose of humor! In each episode we cover a chapter of Tolkien’s works: reading our favorite passages, discussing recurring themes, and highlighting connections to other Middle-earth tales, to showcase the rich tapestry woven by this master storyteller…

We believe even Tolkien’s deepest works can be accessible to anyone. We wish to open the door to this beloved author for whoever wants to enter, and like the common-room of the Prancing Pony inn in Bree, we welcome every traveler through Middle-earth – from hobbits newly setting on out on their first adventures, to wizards well-versed in the ancient lore – to join in the conversation by asking questions and offering their thoughts…”

In addition to the read along, they do episodes on related subjects, like the languages that Tolkien created, the impact that war had on his mind and his writing, the movie versions of these books and so on. They have also done interviews with people like Tom Shippey  and others who have written about Tolkien or his books. It is an engaging podcast and I’m genuinely enjoying it.

It has obviously made me reflect on my own experience of reading Tolkien, but I will leave that for another post. Even if you are not interested in doing the read along, the outtakes and the episodes on related subjects are well worth listening to.  So go look this up.



Book Recommendation: Stargazing by Peter Hill.

This is a book I read last year and I wanted to write about it because it is special and not as well known or regarded as it should be.


This is an account of six months that the author spent being a lighthouse keeper. This was back in 1973, just a few years before lighthouses were automated and the profession disappeared.

Peter Hill was 19 years old back then and he was a student at Dundee College of Art. By his account, he answered an advertisement seeking lighthouse keepers as a lark more than anything else.

But then he got called for an interview by The Northern Lighthouse Board and just like that he was hired and he found himself on his way to his first appointment. This was a lighthouse on Pladda, a tiny, uninhabited island off the coast of Arran which is one of the larger Scottish islands.

He writes about this and about other stints on other lighthouses with a warmth and a freshness that is truly charming to encounter. His descriptions both of the stunning landscapes and the people, all of them interesting and unique in one way or the other, made this book a joy to read.

Trivia : Daffodils

It was on this day in 1802 that William Wordsworth was walking home with his sister Dorothy when he came across a patch of Daffodils that became the inspiration for one his most famous poems.

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;”

Dorothy wrote in her journal: “When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.”

William was impressed by the daffodils too, but he didn’t write anything about them for at least two years, maybe more. No one is sure when he wrote the poem, but it was published in 1807. Wordsworth probably referenced Dorothy’s journal for inspiration and his wife Mary came up with the two lines that begin the final stanza.

“They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;

Wordsworth said they were the best lines in the poem. I agree, but it is the last two lines that really bring it home for me.

“And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”


Writer’s Almanac




Reading Habits: Do you underline passages and make notes in your books?

I don’t. I never have. And it is not because I think it is wrong to underline or make notes in a book. I’ve just never felt comfortable doing it, even with a pencil. When I was younger I used to keep a diary for the express purpose of copying down passages from books that I thought were unique and insightful or just very well written. I would then add my notes and comments and it made such interesting reading later on, particularly when I was re-reading a book and I got to see what a younger me had thought about it.

This disinclination to mark or underline passages and comment on them is curious because I buy a lot of second hand books and I love finding the marks of previous owners. I like finding little notes and underlined passages, that let me know what the previous owner of the book liked and what they thought of different parts of the book.

Now that I’m reading digital books (as well as physical books), I find myself highlighting passage after passage and making copious notes and comments in my kindle…all of which sit within the book. I’m having so much fun with this. All this pausing and reflecting, highlighting and commenting has enhanced the reading experience for me. The next time I come across something in a physical book that I want to comment on, I just might pick up a a pencil…


Trivia : James Thurber

James Thurber, the American writer and cartoonist was born on this day in 1894. Despite being the author of 40 books, Thurber is best known for a short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that he wrote in 1939. This story is just six pages long and it features a henpecked husband whose heroic daydreams include being a magnificent surgeon, a Commander in the Navy, a deadly assassin and so on. The story is considered an American classic and the term “Mitty-esque” is used to describe an ineffectual person with big, empty dreams.

When he was a boy, one of his brothers shot him in the eye with a bow and arrow during a game of William Tell. Thurber lost the eye and during the course of his lifetime, his remaining eye gradually weakened, eventually leaving him completely blind. He was at The Ohio State University for a while, but his grades suffered because of his eyesight and he left without a degree.

For the next several years, he was a code clerk for the Department of State and then he worked for a while as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, writing a column called Credos and Curios. He then moved to Paris to write as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

He met the writer, E.B. White at a party in New York City and White thought he was funny, so he introduced him to Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker. Ross gave him a job on the spot, though it wasn’t as a writer; it was as managing editor. White shared an office with Thurber, though, and they became close friends, even co-writing a book, Is Sex Necessary? (1929), a spoof on sexual manuals, which were very popular at the time.

Thurber did the illustrations for the book, and White pressed Ross to use some of his drawings in The New Yorker, which is how Thurber ended up being a cartoonist. His cartoons were sparely drawn, and often odd, and Ross mostly didn’t understand them at all, but they proved very popular. Thurber stayed at The New Yorker for more than 30 years.

He wrote most of his books after he’d become almost completely blind. He had an astounding memory and would often spend up to three hours in the morning writing his books in his head, turning the words over and over until he felt they were polished. Then he would call his secretary and dictate his stories to her.

He used a special type of magnifying glass called a Zeiss loupe to do his cartoons. About his drawings, Thurber once said, “I’m not an artist. I’m a painstaking writer who doodles for relaxation.” By 1950, he’d stopped drawing because at that point all he he could see was light and shadow.

He hated being described as a humorist. He said once, that, “The notion that writers of humor are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. … To call such persons ‘humorists,’ a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.”

James Thurber’s books include The Thurber Carnival (1945), Thurber Country (1953), and The Years With Ross (1959).


The Writer’s Almanac

On Reading : Cornelia Funke

“Isn’t it odd how much fatter a book gets when you’ve read it several times?” Mo had said…”As if something were left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells…and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there, too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower…both strange and familiar.”

Cornelia Funke

On December 6th, 1768…

…the first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica was published. It is the oldest general-knowledge encyclopedia written in the English language, and it grew out of the Scottish Enlightenment. The first edition was published and printed in Edinburgh. It was co-founded by Colin Macfarquhar, a printer and bookseller, and an engraver called Andrew Bell. Its first editor was a printer named James Smellie.

Smellie wrote new content, but he also compiled many previously printed articles on his subjects, and used to joke that he “had made a dictionary of arts and sciences with a pair of scissors.” It was sold by Macfarquhar at his printing office on Nicolson Street. The work was issued in parts from December 1768 to 1771 with double-columned pages. The parts were bound in three stout quarto volumes of some 2,500 pages, with 160 copperplate engravings created by Andrew Bell. 


The title page begins as follows: “Encyclopedia Britannica; Or, A Dictionary Of Arts and Sciences, Compiled Upon A New Plan.” The work could not compete in bulk with the 68 volumes of Johann Heinrich Zedler’s Universal Lexicon or with the French Encyclopédie, whose 17 volumes of text had recently been completed. But it did challenge comparison with all previous dictionaries of arts and sciences, large or small, because of its new plan.

The new plan of the Encyclopedia Britannica consisted of including treatises on the arts and sciences in the same alphabetical series as short articles on technical terms and other subjects, with plentiful cross references from the one type of entry to the other. It was thus intended to satisfy two kinds of readers simultaneously: those wishing to study a subject seriously, who would work their way through the treatises; and those in search of quick reference material, who could instantly turn to what they wanted in its alphabetical order.

It was a “how-to” book as much as a reference; the seven-page entry on ‘Smoke’, for example, included instructions for building a chimney so that smoke would not back up into the room.

A new section of the Encyclopedia was published each week with the final section coming out in print in 1771.  In 2012, the president of the Encyclopedia Britannica announced that they would no longer produce a print edition. The 15th edition published in 2010, marks the last printing, but the Encyclopedia lives on, on the Internet.


The Writer’s Almanac

Encyclopedia Britannica