In these trying times of 'alternative facts' and 'fake news', works of non-fiction might be considered an increasingly precious and valuable resource, and so to celebrate World Book Day 2017 here are a few of fiction's less familiar cousins, all with origins in the city of Edinburgh...
In December 1768 the first instalment of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was published in Edinburgh, costing sixpence, and followed at weekly intervals with subsequent instalments until the full volume was completed in 1771. Divided into three hardback collections of letters A-B, C-L and M-Z, the encyclopaedia gathered essays on associated subjects, arranged by type rather than alphabetically.
The publication had been the project of two Edinburgh men, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell, who worked as booksellers, printers and engravers in the city, inspired by the boom in new ideas, discoveries and thinking taking place in Edinburgh at the time. This period, now known as the 'Scottish Enlightenment', gave the world many of its major philosophical and intellectual figures, including David Hume, Adam Smith and James Hutton.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica changed shape, format and style overs its lifetime, until ceasing to be published in a physical form in 2012 - by the twenty-first century the collected edition had expanded to around 40 million words, over 18,251 pages, a huge increase on the 2,391 of the original edition!
Prior to giving the world the King James Bible, James VI of Scotland also gave the world another popular book, itself with dubious claims to being 'non-fiction'. First printed in 1597, his Daemonologie became a standard text on the classification of demons, the signs and symbols of witchcraft, the techniques for tracking and identifying witches, and the legal bases on which they should be tried and executed.
James had been a keen believer in the evils of black magic, and had been heavily involved in several witch hunts and trials around the Edinburgh area, particularly the infamous Berwick witch trials of 1590. His book became a reliable compendium by which men, women, children and animals could be brought to account for their nefarious practices, and is thought to have been one of the primary sources drawn on by Shakespeare in writing Macbeth in 1606.
THE WEALTH OF NATIONS
A textbook of international trade, Adam Smith's vision of global capitalism, was first printed in 1776 and has the status of being the first work detailing principles of modern economics.
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, to give it its full title, had been intended by Smith as just one volume in a series of 23 works detailing the moral and scientific basis for a wider range of disciplines, including the sciences, law, astronomy and the arts. The writer himself considered his earlier volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a superior work, but it is The Wealth of Nations which remains one of the most influential works of non-fiction around the world today.
Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, in Fife, to the north of Edinburgh, but lived and worked in Panmure House on the Canongate, on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. He is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard, and his grave has accumulated coins from many countries around the world, thrown there by visitors in tribute to Smith's global impact.
CHAMBERS ENGLISH DICTIONARY
Published in 1872, the Chambers's English Dictionary, as it was originally called, was the work of two brothers, William and Robert Chambers. William Chambers had been lord provost, or mayor, of Edinburgh, and was responsible for much of the redevelopment of the city during the 1860s and 1870s, under what were known as the 'improvements' of Edinburgh. The Chambers dictionary remains a standard version of the English dictionary, and for a long time was the official dictionary recognised globally by the organisation who promoted and distributed the word game Scrabble.
The volume became a must-have for lexicographers, crossword addicts and puzzlers due to its keen inclusion of archaic, less familiar and unusual words and phrases. Its definitions were also traditionally more characteristic than other dictionaries - the entry for éclair, for example, read: "a cake, long in shape but short in duration"!
William Chambers is commemorated in Edinburgh with a statue on the street named for him, Chambers Street in the Old Town.
Find out more about Edinburgh's literary influences with my private walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-20