The Novel Encyclopedia

Horn, Richard. Encyclopedia. New York: Grove, 1969. (Out of print.)

I didn’t finish this novel, or rather, I didn’t read all of it. I really couldn’t get myself to, it’s not very good at all. So why I am bothering to review an out of print book that I didn’t like? Well, there’s an idea to its form that I am much interested in (and have worked on a bit before even hearing of this novel), so I thought I’d discuss that a little in context of this novel as an unsuccessful use of the form.

If the title doesn’t give it away, this novel is in the form and style of an encyclopedia. As the preface states: “It is not an encyclopedia or encyclopedic dictionary of general or specialized knowledge, but of particular knowledge… Such a work is called on the Continent a hand encyclopedia.” (7) I haven’t found a reference yet to this “hand encyclopedia” concept, so I wonder if Horn made it up. Regardless, by having the encyclopedic content be “particular”, Horn sidesteps one of the things that makes an encyclopedia an encyclopedia and puts it to a use more novelistic.

Perhaps we should take the time to look at what makes an encyclopedia. The main elements would be content and form. On the content side, encyclopedias are repositories of knowledge, most often of general knowledge, such as in the Encyclopedia Britannica or more recently the Wikipedia, or of specialized knowledge, such as the Oxford Companion series on all sorts of topics (one of my favorites being the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature) or the Oulipo Compendium. The reader goes to an encyclopedia for knowledge, facts, usually about the real world (though certainly there are encyclopedias of fictional worlds, such as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth).

On the form side is the idea of accessibility. Unlike (most) novels and non-fiction books, encyclopedias (and most reference books) are not designed to be read from front to back. Instead, they are designed so that the reader can have easy access to the information for which they are looking. This is most often done with alphabetical organization and/or indexes, though other forms of organization are used for various types of books. Encyclopedias are generally alphabetized, that is, the articles within are alphabetized by their title/topic, thus enabling easy reader access. I want information on Pliny’s Natural History (one of or the earliest book considered an encyclopedia according to my Britannica) so I look up “Pliny” in my Oxford Companion to Classical Literature and find an article about the author and his work (I could also look up “Natural History”, find an entry for “Naturalis Historia” and a cross-reference to “Pliny the Elder” (Cross-references being another way that accessibility is created in reference works)). In this way the encyclopedia does not need to be read front to back to find the information I need.

Besides these main two elements, encyclopedias could also be defined subsidiarily through style. The dry, informative style purged of any poetic flourish could be considered a standard of the modern encyclopedia.

Certainly, many novels feel encyclopedic in different ways, the first example that comes to mind being Moby Dick and the encyclopedic nature of the whaling knowledge contained within (another great example is Bouvard et Pecuchet (my favorite Flaubert)). In this case the knowledge is accessible only through the rather limited means most often seen in novels, the table of contents. If I want to find the passage on “whiteness”, I can skim the table of contents until I come upon “Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale”, but this is less useful if I want to find other types of information less explicitly referenced in the chapter titles (which actually gets to my interest in the index and its relation to novels, an article for another time).

Horn, through his “particular knowledge” concept, has made his novel, contentually (pardon the neologism), fit into an encyclopedic rubric, albeit an unusual one, while retaining the form and style of a conventional encyclopedia. The novel is made up of alphabetically organized sections, most less than a page in length, cross-referenced, and written in a dry, informative style. The headings themselves, other than providing ease of access for cross-reference and simple browsing, are mostly odd and very specific. Beyond characters and places there are such headings as “Control Your Downs”, “Navy Work Shirt”, and “Phantoms That We Create For Ourselves.” Since the novel cannot be read linearly (or at least, it wouldn’t feel right to read it that way), the odd headings do encourage browsing and then the cross-references create the path(s) to follow through the work. The form of the work is successful and makes for an interesting way to read, piecing together bits of narrative (though, see below, the narrative isn’t worth the effort).

Where the novel really fails is in content and style. The style, as I stated, is very dry. The reportage type write-up of events makes for uninteresting reading. By not taking advantage of one of the things that most makes literature literature, use of language, Horn fails to really bridge the gap from the encyclopedic form to a literary work. Similarly, the content of the book is uninteresting and horribly stereotypical for the post-beatnik/pre-hippy milieu of the late sixties. The book abounds with free sex, failed artists, drugs, etc. These things could make for interesting reading were they done well, and could even be stereotypical and interesting were there something else to hang onto (for instance, Richard Brautigan’s often too-much-of-its-time work is saved by his wonderful use of metaphor and fantasy), sadly Horn has neither, and, like I said, I didn’t manage to read the majority of the entries (the organization did make it easier for me to browse throughout the book for interesting bits and a sense of the work as a whole).

What interests me here is that the form is a successful use of a non-linear narrative, a old organization for a new use, but this novel isn’t a shining beacon of success. Perhaps there is another one out there (I have yet to read Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars which I think is in a similar form). Any suggestions?