6 June 2010

All the Answers

Dr. Brewer's Guide to Science by the Rev. Dr. Brewer Published by Jarrold and Sons 1874

This is a dumpy little brick-shaped and brick-coloured book with a faded embossed design around the covers and a motif of gilt ivy leaves to the spine. One edge of the spine cover has come loose so that it flaps around as irrititatingly as an unglued sole. After more than a century of opening and closing the front cover, it's a common enough problem with reference books of this age and it has the small compensation of revealing the common practice of Victorian bookbinders who would reinforce the inside of spine covers with printers' scraps. This copy reveals a fragment from Jarrold's catalogue which lists six or seven history titles, including [A Child]'s Pathway Through the History of England. With Heads of the Sovereigns. Sounds a bit gruesome, but they certainly knew how to add value back then.

First thing on a random opening is a continuation of the stream of quick-fire questions and answers that makes up the bulk of the book. Here, the questions seem to be about clouds. I learn that Britain is more cloudy than Egypt and that the thickness of a cloud can be discovered by walking up a mountain. The last couple of questions in this section touch on the subject of electricity, stating that the shape of clouds is related to how much electrical charge they hold with "the most fantastical shapes" being formed by those that are "most highly electrified". There's always a fascination, and perhaps a little smugness, in sitting at my gently whirring computer surrounded by various sleek appliances, reading a Victorian take on the mysteries of electricity. What did they know? How could they possibly have imagined the world 100 years down the line? And then I realise that I don't actually know if it's true that electricity plays any part in the shape of clouds.

The front bits give the full title of the book as A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar. Some of the Reverend Dr Brewer's other books are listed under his name and he seems to be a bit of an all-rounder covering everything from Roman history to book-keeping by single and double entry. Not only that, but he was clearly a Victorian best-seller as this is stated to be the 32nd edition, Hundred-and-Sixty-First Thousand. Though it was first published four years before this, there is no mention in this list of his most famous book, the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which is still in print.

Leafthrough. As mentioned, this is a sequence of questions and answers relating to everyday (1874-style) occurrences and the science that was understood to lie behind them. The queries seem to be sequential with each answer giving rise to the next question - a bit like a child continually asking "why?" in response to a parent's every explanation. Even though there is a sequence to the questions, they are grouped under chapter headings that range from the broad scope of subjects such as "Air", "Water" and "Light" to the very specific such as "Phosphuretted Hydrogen Gas". This last, it turns out, is "the very offensive effluvia of dead bodies in church yards".

Looking into it.
Q. What is the origin of this book?
A. This book has its genesis in the habit of its author of keeping a pencil and paper by him whenever he was reading in order to jot down what he considered to be useful or interesting pieces of information. These scraps he would collect and file in different lockers.
Q. What is the purpose of this book?
A. To provide edifying information on the scientific basis of the everyday experiences of an increasingly literate population. Also, it seems to have a running remit to point out the niftiness of God in putting the universe together. In this sense, the book's publishing history, from around 1841 to this edition of 1875, encompasses a period when anyone connected with religion would have had to grapple with the implications of Darwin's Origin of the Species which appeared in 1859. Brewer's response is to stick doggedly with the notion of divine design, or teleology. A substantial section of the index is headed "God's wisdom shown in..." and the subjects that follow range from the down of birds to November rains and the froth of saliva.

Q. Why is it set out in questions and answers?
A. The Reverend Dr Ebeneezer Cobham Brewer was ordained as a Baptist minister and was the son of a Norwich schoolmaster who was active in the Baptist congregation of St Mary's church. He would have been instinctively aware of how the question-and-answer structure of a catechism could be used to convey information simply and memorably. In fact, given the level of complexity and verbosity of reference material at that time, the approach seems remarkably prescient, anticipating the e-generation's reliance on the FAQ and probably explaining the book's remarkable popularity.
Q. Is/was this book any use?
A. Although one century's fact is another century's fallacy, and no one now would rely on the accuracy of the information it contains, the sales of this and Brewer's other works suggest that it was considered a useful addition to the domestic libraries of the Victorian middle classes. For the 21st-century reader, at this point in publishing history, a little reference work like this is a reminder that the basic motives that drive the digital world are the same as those that drove the generations who had to rely on print. Brewer's solutions to the problems of presenting information and stimulating interest and curiosity were entirely modern. In particular, he did not expect his readers to passively digest the nuggets of knowledge that make up his book. An appendix contains a list of "miscellaneous questions for the ingenious reader to solve".

Q. How popular was this book?
A. From its earliest publication around 1841, Brewer's Guide to Science went through 47 editions, the last one being published in 1905. As it turned out it was fortunate that Brewer's original idea of selling the copyright to the publisher Thomas Jarrold for £50 was rejected in favour of a profit-sharing arrangement. He made enough money from the book to travel extensively and devote his time to the many other titles that he produced, including the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
Q. What is the strangest question and answer in the book?
A. Reading through almost any sequence of questions and answers in the book builds up a strange sensation of acquiring a 19th century mindset. It's a bit like having a slightly one-sided conversation with a pompous Victorian polymath. Aside from individually startling questions like "is a man in metal armour in danger from lightning?", it's when he latches onto a subject that things can get really odd. His whole take on colour, for example, revolves around a synaesthetic interpretation of the visible world in which colours have corresponding notes (red, a deep bass or yellow a middle C) all produced by undulations of the ether. With a religious tone underpinning the explanation of every scientific certainty, there is a constant sense of there being more things in heaven and earth than we can ever be aware of. Knowledge and understanding are things to be pursued but never actually obtained, like a will o' the wisp.
Q. What is a will o' the wisp?
A. It's a glowing mist of light sometimes seen on marshland at night. It will run away from you if you move towards it and it will follow you if you flee from it, but you can never catch it in your grasp. It is caused, according to Dr Brewer, by our old friend phosphuretted hydrogen, also known as ignis fatuus.