Modern encyclopedias are cheerful, attractive vehicles for learning, writes Tom Deveson SECTION:Features NO PHYSICAL FILE Bertrand Russell could always tell from Aldous Huxley's conversation which volume of the encyclopedia he had just been reading; it would be Alps and Andes today and Himalayas and the Hippocratic Oath tomorrow. That fragmentation of learning, deriving from the randomness of alphabetic order, has bedevilled encyclopedias for centuries. Diderot used phrases like "tree of human knowledge" to indicate a deep faith in the unity of nature and our understanding of it - but still sacrificed his vast intellectual project to the arbitrariness of French spelling.
Children's editions often try to compromise. The old Oxford Children's Encyclopedia used the convenience of alphabetical order, but boxed its treasures into 12 volumes under broad titles such as Recreations and The Universe. It had few colour pictures and dense columns. Many a bookish Fifties childhood was quickened by sizeable articles on Joseph Grimaldi or Initiation Ceremonies.
The 1990s A-Z version is bright, multi-coloured, generous in inclusiveness if not in length of exposition. Most of the essays fit with a single page, broken up with excellent maps, splendid photographs, clearly labelled diagrams and short sets of cross-references. The newest version manages to encompass the rise of Bill Gates and the fall of John Major, the return of Hong Kong to China and the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.
It's a book rather more suited to classroom projects than to lone exploratory browsing. Poetry starts with a silly definition from Dylan Thomas and then doesn't allow room for poets from before 1900 except brief bits of Basho, Lear and Clare - an odd trio. The whim of juxtaposition puts Moldova, its vineyards and Romanian heritage, beside Molecules, and Oases next to Obesity, complete with height-weight charts for men and women (but not children). Oasis feature with Bjork under Pop Music, though Janacek and Tippett both fail to make the grade under Opera.
It's a welcoming and cheerful introduction to scholarship, but I can't help mourning the dark pages of its predecessor where I first learned about Emerson and Endocrine Glands.
The Kingfisher is, if anything, even more visually inviting. It makes imaginative use of typefaces and page layouts.
At more than three kilograms, it's not a volume to be leafed through in bed. But as an adjunct to classroom work or reliable informant in a child's own bookcase, it has much to offer. It uses the alphabetical approach, but by giving many of its topics a degree of generality, it goes some way towards providing an elucidation as well as a reflection of the world.
Headings like Evolution, Money, Slavery and Time enable the writers to bring in a broad range of pertinent information and at the same time to relate it to a set of underlying ideas. Each topic is headed by a short lucid definition, whereupon the text is divided into a number of clearly self-contained sections. This means that less capable readers - aged about eight upwards - can get something from an article, while their more fluent friends can absorb it all.
The illustrations are superbly varied and have brief informative captions.A final 12-page appendix lists such things as Recent Wars and Conflicts, Philosophers and Reformers and Prime Ministers of New Zealand. Hands up if you remember Wallace Rowling.
Our post-modern world is effectively on display in such pages as the article on Media, where Greg Rusedski is seen simultaneously in an action photograph, appearing on television and featuring in a newspaper; or in a simple but informative entry on the Internet. Lady Thatcher isn't in the Index but gets an illustration in the appendix that makes her look strangely harmless. We seem to have been spared Princess Diana.
In his Poem Of The Gifts, the librarian and writer J L Borges spoke of "encyclopedias, centuries, dynasties ... offered from the walls." Such gifts need renewing for each generation.