A good encyclopedia should do two things: feed our needs for both information and imagination. We should be able to lose ourselves in something that we didn't know before we picked up that book. And we should start to connect what we know with what we've read.
William Vollmann, the contemporary novelist, has decided to give us an encyclopedia of violence. He's called the seven-volume work -- decades in the making -- Rising Up and Rising Down. It's been published, against probability, by McSweeney's Press, in a hardcover boxed set that is torn apart by the weight of the books. Clearly, we're dealing with an obsessive project.
His first volume begins with "Three Meditations on Death." Here, Vollmann details his own confrontation with violence, and the light that illuminates it: mortality. He then goes on to offer a frank personal introduction to the work. "Putting aside any notion that the world is becoming a better place was neither easy nor pleasant for me," he writes.
The world, as he goes on to detail it, is pretty bad. Vollmann has assembled a good record of our crimes. The seven volumes use sources as diverse as Jesus Christ, the Marquis de Sade, and Animal Liberation Front member "Virginia" to give us stories that Vollmann examines for the clues and qualities of violence.
From this, Vollmann derives his "Moral Calculus," which is the part of the book that may go on to have lasting impact. The topics of this guide include things like "What Factors Need To Be Considered in Judging Any Violent Act?" and "Maxims for Murderers." That last category contains this piece of wisdom: "The Klansman's Maxim: If I believe your race or culture threatens mine, I have the right first to threaten you back, then to remove your threat by violence." Contemporary American politicians couldn't have said it better.
Yet despite indulging in the temptation to judge his subjects, Vollmann remains a reliable guide. We certainly can't ask for an encyclopedist of a topic as dark as violence to be absolutely objective. But most of his editorializing comes from evocative and compelling descriptions of what historical events must have been like, because, as he writes, "I figured that if my theorizing were wrong or unpalatable, the reader might at least have some moments of pleasure." Pleasure, certainly, in reading something this audacious and chilling.