In This Old Man, his recent collection of autobiographical and critical writings, Roger Angell fondly recalls how his boyhood was shaped by the fabled Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

It was published in 1911, the same year my old man graduated from college, and I think he must have picked up ours early on; by the time I got into it—and into "Aboukir" and "Armor" and "Muscular System" (great drawings), "Reptiles" and "Zanzibar," along with "Ship"—each slender, blue leather-bound volume would leave a crumbly dust of learning in my lap when I got up to put it away.

Others have claimed the Eleventh as an early literary influence. Jorge Luis Borges wrote of the Britannica's place of honor in his father's library. After winning a modest literary award in 1929, the young Borges used part of his winnings to buy a secondhand set of the Eleventh for himself. As a 14-year-old, Kenneth Clark took the Eleventh to bed with him during a convalescence and was hooked. Within its pages, he wrote, a reader "leaps from one subject to another, fascinated as much from the play of mind and the idiosyncrasies of the authors as by the facts and dates."

Angell, now in his nineties, perhaps belongs to the last living generation of readers to have such an intimate connection with the Eleventh. For the rest of us, the excellence of the Eleventh, like the sublimity of the Mona Lisa or the genius of Shakespeare, tends to be not so much argued as simply assumed.

But why was the Eleventh so special? That's the question Denis Boyles tackles in this cultural history of the Britannica's iconic edition.

During the Eleventh's heyday, perhaps it was simplest to agree that the Eleventh was great because Horace Everett Hooper said so. As the edition's driving force, he was a tireless promoter, a difficult man to refuse. After someone expressed surprise at the Eleventh's healthy sales—doubting that so many people would want the new encyclopedia—Hooper offered a correction: They didn't necessarily want to buy the Britannica, he conceded, "I made 'em."

Born into a distinguished Massachusetts family in 1859, Hooper was expected to get a university education and become a lawyer, perhaps even entering government service like his father, who had moved the family to Washington when he got a job in the Lincoln administration. But while working in a bookstore, young Horace fell in love with the trade, ditching the classroom and heading west to find his own way. As Boyles explains, the frontier proved a promising market for booksellers: "Social aspirations required even the poorest settlers to seek cultural equality by owning one of the badges of literacy—a bound set of Dickens or Shakespeare, Mark Twain's latest book, or an imposing shelf of encyclopedias, atlases, and dictionaries."

Book salesmen of the period often dramatized their products, offering recitations from selected works to drum up business. Hooper never seemed to lose the sense of literature as a kind of theater, an attitude that played to his strengths. He was a natural performer with a gift for recasting old wine in new wineskins. When sales of the venerable Century Dictionary faded, he joined with Henry Haxton, an equally aggressive pitchman, to revive the brand: "An ideal Christmas present!" their ad exhorted. "Buy now! A great boon!" Hooper and Haxton had a Trumpian sense of hyperbole, swinging exclamation points like billy clubs to beat customers into compliance.

Hooper steamed across the Atlantic in 1896 and in no time was brainstorming a similar revival for the Britannica, which had fallen on hard times. He recruited the Times as a business partner, using its resources to help relaunch the encylopedia's Ninth Edition, then a Tenth. Sales climbed, although Englishmen accustomed to quietly discreet notices for books harrumphed at Hooper's Barnumesque bravado: "You have made a damnable hubbub, sir, and an assault upon my privacy with your American tactics," a retired member of Parliament scolded him in a letter.

Hooper bought out the Britannica's Edinburgh owners, positioning himself for the ambitious Eleventh. Haxton, who had honed his gift for grandiosity as a journalist for the Hearst newspapers, once courted new readers for the Britannica's Ninth by suggesting that it was ideal "for men—and women—who have already enjoyed the fullest opportunities of education, who desire to refresh and clarify the impressions already received."

That's also a pretty good take on the Eleventh, which was less interested in challenging popular assumptions than in affirming them. Boyles describes the self-assurance that suffused the Eleventh under its editor, the Englishman Hugh Chisholm. In Chisholm's hands, the Eleventh loomed as large as a pyramid, a striking monument to the accomplishments of the British Empire:

Modern life seemed finally to conform to a rational structure, one nourished by commerce, enlightened by charity and good works, governed by order, and devoted to Progress. A Union Jack, representing the global supremacy of the English language, flew confidently from the apex of that pyramid .  .  . Now the entire world—all of existence, really—could be explained, if only one knew where to look.

Chisholm, an Oxford-educated writer and editor for England's leading publications, practiced a style of journalism that (as Boyles puts it) encouraged writers "to not only report events but to inject into their reportage commentary wrapped in literary style." He applied the same approach to the Eleventh, recruiting, in addition to the usual specialized experts, lots of fellow journalists to write entries. The result displayed clarity and vigorous expression to a degree not typically seen in reference works, lending the Eleventh its mainstream appeal.

The range of entries seemed to reach as far as the empire itself, colonizing virtually every subject. The Eleventh served up erudition on boas, bugs, and backscratchers, cockroaches and condors, the evil eye and the history of toast. "It was formerly the custom to have pieces of toast floating in many kinds of liquor, especially when drunk hot," we learn. "It is said to be from this custom that the word is used of the calling upon a company to drink the health of some person, institution or cause." Boyles quotes heavily from the Eleventh in his narrative, but to get the true flavor of the landmark edition, it's best to read the entries whole. (For those who aren't lucky enough to have a vintage set, however, there's always 1994's All There Is To Know, a clever one-volume selection edited by Alexander Coleman and Charles Simmons. It's worth a look just to read Coleman's capsule history of the Eleventh in the prologue.)

Like Coleman, Boyles suggests that the chief charm of the Eleventh—its perfect encapsulation of the English mind and manners at the dawn of the 20th century—is also at times its darkest complication. The entry titled "Negro," for example, is a catalogue of stereotypes, arguing that blacks are inferior because of their poor brain structure, which inclines them as they approach adulthood "to a sort of lethargy, briskness yielding to indolence." It's one of numerous passages in the Eleventh when a reader goes looking for omniscience but instead bumps into the familiar, fallible voice of a fellow human being—a spectacled scribe dressing up nonsense as fact. As Kenneth Clark said of the Eleventh, it "must be the last encyclopaedia in the tradition of Diderot which assumes that information can be made memorable only when it is slightly colored by prejudice."

Memorable writing ultimately requires memorable writers, a truth that wasn't lost on the founding fathers of the Eleventh. Among the high-profile contributors were T. H. Huxley, Algernon Swinburne, and Bertrand Russell. Edmund Gosse wrote the entry on "Style," an essay on the ideals of literary expression that serves as a shining example of the virtues it seeks to impart. Style, he told readers, "appeals exclusively to those who read with attention and for the pleasure of reading. It is not even perceived by those who read primarily for information." Which is why the Eleventh endures more than a century later, in our cyber age of information glut. Facts come cheaply, but real style is a rare commodity.