A review of
Encyclopedia Volume I, A-E
edited by Tisa Bryant,
Miranda F. Mellis, and Kate Schatz
Denis Diderot is usually recognized as the first modern encyclopedist. After publishing ribald stories and other lesser works, Diderot decided to compile all the ideas of the Enlightenment. Diderot’s first volume was published in 1751, under the title Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. The project earned him the undying enmity of the church, hostility from friends, and it took him twenty years to get to the letter z. These days, the success of web browsers like Google and online resources like Wikipedia make clear that the notion of the universal collection still has a powerful allure. Collecting everything, according to this view, would confer much wisdom upon the possessor thereof.
The encyclopedia we have before us has a much different ambition. Contributors to this self-published annual volume (who number among them literary eminences like Carole Maso, Eileen Myles, Samuel R. Delany, Diane Williams, and Brian Evenson, as well as critics, academics, and visual artists) were given five words, one each for letters a, b, c, d, and e, and asked to answer in each entry the following question: “What occurs under the sign of fiction?” If this question sounds a little bit like it was generated in the Brown University Modern Culture and Media program, that’s because the Encyclopedia was, in fact, birthed in the fertile womb of Brown U., hotbed of semiotica and experimental fiction (and, it should be noted, my alma mater).
Those mildly afeard in the presence of post-structuralism (and its discontents) needn’t worry unduly. I personally have no idea what the “sign of fiction” is or means, but that didn’t inhibit my great enjoyment of Encyclopedia.
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