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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

On the bibliophilic actuary

One of the more interesting encyclopædias I have come across recently is the Encyclopædia of Post-Renaissance Actuarial Culture, reviewed in the December 2001 issue of The Actuary. Does, one might ask, the non-existence of a book render it any the less worthy of consideration than those books possessing the utilitarian quality of physical existence? The Italian publisher Zanichelli would answer no: its recently published Mirabiblia: Catalogo ragionato di libri introvabili, by Paolo Albani and Paolo della Bella, is an extensive and detailed catalogue of non-existent books (extensive, but unfortunately not definitive). Admirers of Humpty Dumpty will no doubt recall their hero’s words on the matter, during a discussion of Jabberwocky – ‘I can explain all the poems that ever were invented – and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet’; the Argentinean writer Borges contended, in The Library of Babel, that a book need only be possible in order to exist; but perhaps a rather fruitless metaphysical speculation can be avoided by conceding that ‘existent’ works offer certain practical advantages over the non-existent.Lovers of curious encyclopædias should find, however, that their passion can be well satisfied even if we restrict their choice to those encyclopædias that exist. We might recommend works such as: La Enciclopedia delle Scienze Anomale by Albani and della Bella, with entries on ephemerology (a discipline involving sandcastles, soap bubbles, sighs inspired by sunsets, sailors’ promises…), elegantology, the science of love, and the faculty of irrelevance (where we study the phonology of pauses, contemporary Sumerian literature, informal logic, avuncocongratulatory mechanics…); the Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini, a two-volume encyclopædia describing an imaginary world written in an impenetrable language invented expressly by Serafini; as well as classics such as Pliny’s Natural History, the world’s first encyclopædia.But perhaps the most fascinating encyclopædia of all – at least until Wiley publishes its Encyclopædia of Actuarial Science next year – is the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. This 1911 publication is universally regarded as the best written of all editions of the Britannica, being the last to have been compiled in England before production moved to the US. Many are the renowned thinkers and writers who have expressed their admiration for this particular version.Aldous Huxley was noted for his habit of carrying a volume of the 11th edition on his travels. Clive James recently recounted a story of how Huxley was once holding forth at a dinner party with erudite authority on an astonishing range of subjects; after a time one of the entourage, realising that all of the subjects discoursed upon began with the same letter, went off to check Huxley’s room – and found the appropriately ‘lettered’ volume wide open on his desk.Borges was one of that edition’s most ardent admirers, and many of his stories are reminiscent of encyclopædia entries. He once said of the work, ‘the eleventh edition was far superior to more recent editions. It was made to be read. Now they’re just texts for consultation. But in the eleventh edition of the Britannica, there were long essays written by Macaulay, by Coleridge, by de Quincey…’This edition of the Britannica is just one of the many exceptional and worthy works nestling unassumingly in the Staple Inn library. Even just a few minutes of browsing in this library is likely to lead to the joyous discovery of some previously unsuspected work. Recent visits have left me the happy borrower of works such as Charles Babbage’s autobiography, the collected Random Muse (a late 1940s predecessor of The Actuary), and, of course, various volumes of the 11th edition. A fascinating article on the Staple Inn library in this issue (see p30) outlines the many ways in which the library can help us in our quest for actuarial wisdom.What is most extraordinary about this library, however, is that it always seems to be empty of bodies but replete of books, with little of its stock on loan. For a supposedly learned and erudite profession (indeed, a profession whose coat of arms is centred around an open book), this neglect of our intellectual heritage is painful to behold. There seems to be prevalent a curious cultural arrogance that all we need for success (whatever ‘success’ might mean) is present knowledge, and that anything predating that must ipso facto be of no relevance (whatever ‘relevance’ might mean). Do we want to become ignorant parrots, regurgitating only the most recent developments in actuarial thinking, with no appreciation of the evolution of that thinking, and no appreciation of anything beyond those narrow fields?Such neglect of a library is a form of destruction. In Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra, someone remarks to Caesar that the great library of Alexandria is burning – ‘The first of the seven wonders of the world perishes. The library of Alexandria is in flames… What is burning there is the memory of mankind’. ‘A shameful memory. Let it burn’, replies Caesar. Too many of us restrict our thoughts, Caesar-like, to the latest news, the latest regulations, and the latest theories; perhaps we should let them burn instead – our collective literary memory should be a source of inspiration and pride, not shame.