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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Richard Horn

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To purchase Encyclopedia

Title: Encyclopedia
Author: Richard Horn
Genre: Novel
Written: 1969
Length: 165 pages
Availability: Encyclopedia - US
Encyclopedia - UK
Encyclopedia - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B- : interesting playing with form that doesn't go quite deep or far enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 14/12/1969 Edward M. White
The Morning News . 6/11/1969 Tom Rettew

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is a good bit of fun in the doing, particularly in watching the author contort his entries to tell the rudiments of a situation. (...) Unhappily, the book has all the gripping development and vitality of the latest Britannica." - Edward M. White, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The writing is formidable and formed, despite the formlessness of its vehicle. (...) Surprisingly, the style works. But the story Encyclopedia conveys is banal and ultimately a bore." - Tom Rettew, The Morning News

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A work of fiction, Richard Horn's novel nevertheless also lives up to its title, as it is presented in encyclopedia-format: the chapters proceeding alphabetically, each with one or (usually) more entries (that are in turn also presented in alphabetical order). Encyclopedia is not all-encompassingly encyclopædic -- it's a slim work if 165 pages, the total number of entries probably somewhere around three hundred; it doesn't even have entries for the letters Q and X -- but what there is is presented true to form. As a Preface explains, however, this work is different from the familiar encyclopedia in that:

It is not an encyclopedia or encyclopedic dictionary of general knowledge, but of particular knowledge, and it is not derived from any previous encyclopedia.
       (Horn suggests: "Such a work is called on the Continent a hand encyclopedia", though this does not seem to be a common usage or term.)
       What stands out immediately is that the entry-terms are largely not those one would expect in any sort of traditional encyclopedia and, even more so, that the entries themselves then are defined and explained in very personal, local, and particular terms. So, while the first entry is a more general one, the definition/explanation itself then focuses on a specific incident rather than more general description:
ABORTION: self-induced by SADIE MASSEY (Aug. 3, 1966) in Ptn, Mass.; induced by an ampule (100 mg) of ergotamine tartrate injected intramuscularly and pethadine, a synthetic morphine; Massey was assisted by TOM JONES, who believed himself responsible for the embryo. Massey said, "Up to two months this is the safest and easiest way. More girls should know about it."
       Horn also emphasizes in his Preface:
In this book the cross-references are of the utmost importance. These cross-references are indicated by ITALIC CAPITALS. Furthermore, a person, place, or thing which has its own entry in this volume, when first mentioned in an entry other than its own, is in SMALL CAPITALS. The cross-references are not used recklessly; every possible effort has been made to guide the reader through only the relevant material, and to insure that the information under the other heading will be useful.
       The novel is thus not built up in a straightforward sequential way, but rather with its pieces arranged in a very neat -- alphabetical -- but largely counterintuitive order. Many of the entries are dated, helping readers (re-)arrange a chronology of events, and, as promised, Horn does cross-reference related entries, but cause and effect are nowhere near as clear as they are in conventional fiction.
       There are also separate entries for each of the individuals that figure in the story, but in this way the cast of characters is only introduced piecemeal and, being presented alphabetically, not in the order of appearance or importance (though, of course, readers can easily jump ahead and look up the basics about each character as soon as they are named, beginning with Sadie Massey and Tom Jones).
       As with the incidents and objects that rate entries, the person-descriptions vary greatly in what and how much information is provided. The first -- Lane Anderson -- is the most detailed and traditional (if, as such, also very impersonal), with everything from his home address and telephone number to an entire curriculum vitæ, complete with a three-page listing of each poem he has ever published, and where. Other entries are more specific and revealing about specific aspects of the person's life, or limited to certain parts of it.
       The range of entries is great and amusing, from food ('JAR OF SPANISH OLIVES'; 'THREE BOILED POTATOES' (yes, listed under 'T')) and meals to statements, poems, and letter-headings ('DEAR DR. LORENZ,') to general-specific descriptions ("RAINY AFTERNOON (July 26, 1966) in Ptn., Mass."); one is a: "LIST OF BOOKS, on TOM JONES'S bookshelf (606 Comml. St.) Ptn., Mass. (June-Oct., 1966)". The variety ranges from 'ORGIES' to the number 'NINE' to a game of 'MONOPOLY' to one that begins and asks:
WHY IS EVERYONE SO CRAZY ? question raised and answered (Aug. 21, 1966) by TOM JONES in Ptn., Mass.
       Most of the action takes place in 1965 and the summer of 1966; a great deal involves sex and drugs; several of the characters are writers, of varying success, with quite a few poems also presented in full. It is very much a novel of the mid- to late-sixties -- down to Jones having a first edition of "FIXER, THE", by Bernard Malamud. The novel is dedicated to Neal Cassady, and there's a longer entry given over to a declamation of his (while wearing the: "UNMATCHED BOOTS (PAIR)" of that entry).
       In his Preface -- writing as 'Editor-in-Chief' (rather than author) --, Horn suggests that:
     We feel we have performed a service for the modern American reader by ordering the data of particular, daily life in a form already familiar in grasping the entire range of general knowledge (and most specialized fields), and thus affording the reader a new perspective from which, perhaps, he may better his understanding.
       The 'particular, daily life' is of its place and time, and the presentation of it certainly a different, and arresting, way of looking at it.
       In the entry on the "NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW" ("wadded into ball and thrown (Aug.23, 1966) into the fireplace") Jones quotes from Percy Lubbock's 1921 The Craft of Fiction (the author's name misspelled -- intentionally ? -- in the text as 'Kubbock'):
"As quickly as we read a book, it melts and shifts in the memory; even at the moment when the page is turned, a great part of the book, its finer detail, is already vague and doubtful. A little later, after a few days or months, how much is really left of it ? A cluster of impressions, some clear points emerging ... is all we can hope to possess." Jones asked Falis why someone hadn't written a novel made up entirely of these "clusters of impressions," since they were all that remained, regardless of the manner of composition.
       This is the closest Horn comes to explaining, in the novel itself, what he is doing in Encyclopedia, which is ultimately such a 'cluster of impressions'. The novel succeeds as such -- but also largely only at that level, as the story -- the intermingling of the characters and the consequences -- is, for the most part, not particularly compelling. Almost disarmingly true to life in its bits and pieces -- the episodes and events recounted in Encyclopedia feel quite authentic --, that isn't enough to make them, or any story pieced together from them, truly engaging, beyond the effort of piecing things together. (In that way it is of course very true to life, which, in simple description, is often very boring.) Ironically, Encyclopedia is simply not encyclopædic enough: a larger, denser net of terms and cross-references likely would have made a greater impression. than the somewhat limited cluster on offer here.
       Encyclopedia does largely succeed on its own terms; as such, it's an interesting play-on-form, as well as reflection of and commentary on both the place and time of its writing, as well as American writing itself (especially the experiments of those times; one couldn't hit the nail more on the head than this being first published by Grove Press in 1969).
       Encyclopedia is ultimately more a curiosity than a good read, but it is, and remains, of interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 May 2023

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Encyclopedia: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Richard Horn lived 1942 to 1973.

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© 2023 the complete review

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