G. K. Chesterton, in The Flying Inn, 1914:
…this chaotic leader was followed by quite a considerable mass of public correspondence. The people who write to newspapers are, it may be supposed, a small, eccentric body, like most of those that sway a modern state. But at least, unlike the lawyers, or the financiers, or the members of Parliament, or the men of science, they are people of all kinds scattered all over the country, of all classes, counties, ages, sects, sexes, and stages of insanity. The letters that followed Hibbs’s article are still worth looking up in the dusty old files of his paper.
And then, last but the reverse of least, there plunged in all the people who think they can solve a problem they cannot understand by abolishing everything that has contributed to it. We all know these people. If a barber has cut his customer’s throat because the girl has changed her partner for a dance or donkey ride on Hampstead Heath, there are always people to protest against the mere institutions that led up to it. This would not have happened if barbers were abolished, or if cutlery were abolished, or if the objection felt by girls to imperfectly grown beards were abolished, or if the girls were abolished, or if heaths and open spaces were abolished, or if dancing were abolished, or if donkeys were abolished. But donkeys, I fear, will never be abolished.
There were plenty of such donkeys in the common land of this particular controversy. Some made it an argument against democracy, because poor Garge was a carpenter. Some made it an argument against Alien Immigration, because Misysra Ammon was a Turk. Some proposed that ladies should no longer be admitted to any lectures anywhere, because they had constituted a slight and temporary difficulty at this one, without the faintest fault of their own. Some urged that all holiday resorts should be abolished; some urged that all holidays should be abolished. Some vaguely denounced the sea-side; some, still more vaguely, proposed to remove the sea. All said that if this or that, stones or sea-weed or strange visitors or bad weather or bathing machines were swept away with a strong hand, this which had happened would not have happened. They only had one slight weakness, all of them; that they did not seem to have the faintest notion of what had happened.
Wikipedia has some way to go before it can comprehensively replace the great Britannica in all its many roles. From Shackleton’s South, a passage in which he and his crew are stranded on a drifting ice-floe in the Weddell Sea, November 1915:
In addition to the daily hunt for food, our time was passed in reading the few books that we had managed to save from the ship. The greatest treasure in the library was a portion of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica.” This was being continually used to settle the inevitable arguments that would arise. The sailors were discovered one day engaged in a very heated discussion on the subject of Money and Exchange. They finally came to the conclusion that the Encyclopaedia, since it did not coincide with their views, must be wrong.
“For descriptions of every American town that ever has been, is, or ever will be, and for full and complete biographies of every American statesman since the time of George Washington and long before, the Encyclopaedia would be hard to beat. Owing to our shortage of matches we have been driven to use it for purposes other than the purely literary ones though; and one genius having discovered that the paper, used for its pages had been impregnated with saltpetre, we can now thoroughly recommend it as a very efficient pipe-lighter.”
We also possessed a few books on Antarctic exploration, a copy of Browning and one of “The Ancient Mariner.” On reading the latter, we sympathized with him and wondered what he had done with the albatross; it would have made a very welcome addition to our larder.
A moment of amusement, from the (thankfully) long-distant past:
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, which contains more than 100,000 entries and fills fifty-one volumes, includes some distortions so flamboyant as to be beyond belief. These are an old story. But such distortions have importance […]
Almost everyone has heard about what happened to Beria in the Encyclopedia. After his liquidation, subscribers were notified, with full instructions, that they should snip out the article about him and insert in its place substitute articles which were duly enclosed, about the Bering Strait and an obscure eighteenth-century statesman named Berholtz. These were the best available substitutes beginning with ‘Ber’. During Stalin’s day when the party line changed on some matter so important that the Encyclopedia itself had to be changed, subscribers were obliged to turn in the volume affected to the party secretary; it was pulped and a new whole volume, cut and patched, was then sent out to the subscriber. Nowadays the reader is allowed to keep the book, and trusted to make the proper emendation himself. Progress!
Another person ‘expelled’ from the Encyclopedia was a Chinese Communist leader, Kao Kang. To replace him, a substitute page went out dealing with a city in Tibet. […] In their haste to make the revision, the editors overlooked the fact that the same Tibetan city also appeared elsewhere in the Encyclopaedia, spelled differently.
— John Gunther, Inside Russia Today (Penguin, 1964).
From the evening’s reading:
In 1547 Janet Bruce’s priest told her to go on to the High Street of Edinburgh, donate a wax candle to a chaplain, seek out Isobel Carrington, and say to her, in front of witnesses and in good Scots: ‘I grant here before three honest persons that I have fairly and wrangfully injurit and defamit you, sayand and allegand you are ane common bluidy whore. I knaw nothing but ye are ane honest woman and keeps guid pert to your husband.’
Janet was to say also to Isobel’s husband, Robert: ‘I failit far to you and your wife calling you ane cuckold, whilk I confess is nocht of verity for your wife is ane honest woman.’
For the sake of satisfaction on every side, Isobel was then to go to Janet and say: ‘Ye are ane honest woman, I never knew that ever ye swiffit with the auld official, and insofar as I rehearsed the samen I ask God forgiveance and you.’
—Edinburgh: a history of the city, Michael Fry, 2009
Give or take the ‘swiffit’, not much change there in four hundred and sixty years.