My job at AIP brings me into contact with hundreds of books a day. Since the books are all science related I don’t get as sidetracked as I usually would, although there are some titles that sound really interesting even to a layperson. However, I do come across a lot of really neat covers and illustrations. I started taking photos of my favorites, and I thought they would be fun to post here. I’ll have to go back and find some of the other books I saw earlier – there are some particularly fantastic old catalogs of scientific instruments I flipped through during my first few weeks on the job.
The stacks at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives.
Last week I was working my way through the reference section when I came across the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1910-1911). Apparently this is an especially beloved edition due to the quality of its entries (both in terms of writing and scholarship) and its pre-WWI outlook on the world. I took a peek at some of the entries, which are written in kind of a narrative style. AJ Jacobs, an American journalist who read the entire 15th edition of the EB (and wrote about it in his book The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World), noted that compared to more modern editions, reading the 11th is like reading a Faulkner novel instead of an instruction manual.”1
While working on vol. 13 I opened to a page that included the entry for “harpy” (the species of eagle). In all honesty, I had no idea that there was such a bird – I only thought of harpy in terms of the mythological creature or as a derogatory name for annoying women. The entry was interesting, but I love the strange illustration. For comparison, here’s a photo of a Harpy Eagle.
Because the 11th edition is in the public domain, you can read the entire entry here. In part, though, the harpy is “a large diurnal bird of prey, so named after the mythological monster of the classical poets . . . an inhabitant of the warmer parts of America from Southern Mexico to Brazil . . . its habits have come very little under the notice of naturalists, and what is said of them by the older writers must be received with some suspicion. A cursory inspection of the bird . . . its size, and its enormous bill and talons, at once suggest the vast powers of destruction imputed to it, and are enough to account for the stories told of its ravages on mammals sloths, fawns, peccaries and spider-monkeys. It has even been asserted to attack the human race. How much of this is fabulous there seems no means at present of determining, but some of the statements are made by veracious travellers D’Orbigny and Tschudi . . . (A. N.)”2
I also really like the illustration on the facing page for hen-harriers. These are also birds of prey (find a photo here).
I didn’t have time to ready any other entries or flip through for more illustrations, but this seems like an encyclopedia I wouldn’t mind revisiting. The entries hold the same antiquarian charm (and everything that comes with that) as Samuel Johnson’s definitions in A Dictionary of the English Language.
1 AJ Jacobs as quoted in Pedersen, Nate. “The magic of Encyclopedia Britannica’s 11th edition.” books. The Guardian. 10 Apr 2012. [accessed 25 Jan 2013]
2 N., A. “Harpy.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica. 11th ed. 1910-1911. [accessed here 25 Jan 2013]