As late as the 18th century, when Voltaire and Goethe were all-around scholars of history, philosophy, literature, and science, a bright and curious person could aspire to master a great deal of the knowledge available in the world.
A hundred years later, such ambitions became the fantasies of novelists. It remained for Conan Doyle to say of Sherlock Holmes: his specialty is knowing everything.
Already there is a touch of self-parody here that would become desperate by the first quarter of the 20th century when, for instance, the young Aldous Huxley set himself to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z.
To be a walking library in the old sense, one would have to stagger today under a simply crushing load of microfilm.
What we have as our art form of Renaissance scholarship is the Guinness Book of World Records and all those other volumes of "best" lists.
To employ superlatives is to fall into the trap of the "best" books. But it must be said that "The Best of Everything" is certainly one of -- well -- the best.
Edited by William Davis, formerly an editor of Punch, the compilation has a British preference, but not exclusively so. The best building is judged to be New York's Guggenheim Museum, admiringly compared to "a giant hat that has blown across the sidewalk." And the best eatery is declared to be McDonald's, singled out for its thick milk shake ("the cold thud as this drink hits a hot hamburger inside of you is curiously pleasing sensation. . . .").
As these quotes suggest, "The Best of Everything" is more than a bare-bones list. Commentary and justification are amply provided, with arguments running from the erudite to the utterly whimsical.
"The Best of Everthing" is a little like one of those panel games on the BBC, as a matter of fact.
An expert is assigned to each category, and experts, as we all know, have a few things to say. Consider Anthony Burgess, our Literature division man, debating which dictionary is the best. He finally registers his vote for Samuel Johnson's on the grounds that it is "imperfect, hence lovable." But he bows to the Oxford English Dictionary as runner-up with the graceful compliment that it is "too great to be loved."
Things get literary even when they aren't literary, as when the Law and Crime division awards the best legal definition to H. L. Mencken for observing: "A judge is a law student who corrects his own papers."
Gerald Durrell practically writes an essay on why the camel rates with him as best domestic animal.
Nice little English eccentricities are present. Where else would you find consciences being searched to determine the best defunct male fashion accessory? Where else would you find this answer -- spats?
But when the editor and his staff cross the Atlantic they can be as erratic in their judgment as a Yank crossing the other way. Hou could Bobby Hull possibly be rated above Gordie Howe as "indisputably" the best hockey player? And only a terrible case of pop-cultural jet lag can account for Liberace being called the best male personality.
Still, as Mr. Davis points out, what's a list for except to be argued with?
There's nothing like a distinguished nonbook to keep one from feeling the whole world's going audio-visual.
We're not about to promise another Goethe, or even another Voltaire. But we do say: take a little hope, all you who fear that literacy in the future will be reduced to speed-readers sprinting madly thro ugh the World Almanac.