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The Greek poet Callimachus said, “A big book is a big evil.” But in spite of my predilection for tiny books, I sometimes fall in love with a great big monster of a book. That happened to me unexpectedly just a few days ago, when I picked up this bruiser at my department. It weighs about as much as a small feline with a few extra pounds on her (I tried hefting one for comparison).


The scholarly equivalent of William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

I lugged it upstairs and extracted the information I needed. Then it was time to return the volume to the library, but I began to feel oddly reluctant to part with it. Impressed by its monumental proportions, I marveled anew at the fact that it is only one in a huge set of massive brother volumes, a vast encyclopedia of Classical learning compiled by an army of (male) German scholars.


The encyclopedia embodied the concept of Altertumswissenschaft, the systematic study of antiquity.

In 1839, when August Pauly started the encyclopedia, Victoria had been Queen of England for two years (the German states were organized into the short-lived German Confederation). When Georg Wissowa took over the new edition in 1890, he thought it would be a ten-year project. Instead, it was completed in 1978, when Jimmy Carter was President (and Germany was still divided into East and West).


Georg Wissowa, an expert on ancient Roman religion, in 1908-9. Click for source (wikipedia)

The final tally was 83 volumes. They don’t make encyclopedias like that any more. This one is still much-consulted by Classical scholars. Upon receiving an offer of employment, one of my grad school professors had haggled over the terms. Apparently he insisted that the department purchase a full set of the Realencyclopädie for his personal use. Enthroned in majesty, it filled an entire wall of his office.


What a full set looks like. Click for source (wikipedia). I’m not sure one can buy them new anymore, but they are starting to appear online… the end of an era.

A smaller and updated version has now been published–and even translated into English! I checked it in the library and found this:


This set was labeled by one smart librarian and one dumb one. Guess which volumes were labeled by the idiot?