Statements: A man took a book out of the library called How to Hug. It turned out to be volume seven of the encyclopaedia.
These statements have been widely circulated. But are they true?
I realised they required investigation when it occurred to me that in reality a library was unlikely to allow a user to borrow a volume of an encyclopaedia: surely this would render the set useless as a reference tool if, for example, a researcher were then to arrive in urgent need of information about Huchown c. 1375, the mediaeval poet presumed to have been Scottish. Already the scenario seemed unconvincing, and in need of rigorous testing.
The question I needed to answer was this: if there was indeed a volume of an encyclopaedia labelled How to Hug, what number might it be in the set? Would it really be volume seven? Fortunately I was well placed to research this, having a genuine traditional bound 14-volume (plus an index volume) encyclopaedia in the house: Chambers’s (yes, s’s) Encyclopaedia (1965) (reprinted with corrections 1970).
This set uses the same convention of markers on the spines to identify the coverage in each volume, although Chambers’s uses four-letter markers. The entry for Howard, Catherine (the first entry beginning with How) comes on page 270 (coincidentally, of volume 7) and the entry for Huguenots (the final entry beginning with Hug) comes on page 284, 14 pages later. There are a total of 5,281 pages in the set before the entry for Howard, Catherine.
Let us assume that Chambers’s Encyclopaedia has a typical alphabetical distribution of articles in an English language set. Then if each preceding volume was similar in size to How to Hug, the How to Hug volume would be approximately number 377 in the series. Furthermore there are a total of 11,652 numbered pages in the Chambers set: extrapolating this gives an estimated figure of some 832 volumes in a set for which How to Hug makes up an entire volume.
If these volumes were to be of any substance, and not mere 14-page pamphlets, this encyclopaedia would dwarf the French Encyclopédie (published 1751-1772) which contained a mere 35 volumes, although it might still be a lightweight next to the Chinese Yongle Encyclopaedia (1403-1408), which ran to 11,095 volumes.
Conclusion: FALSE. While it is quite possible that the section containing How to Hug might be a part of volume 7 of a 14-volume set, for the statement to be true of a single volume, it would need to be approximately number 377 of an 832-volume set. Furthermore it seems very unlikely that any competent librarian would allow piecemeal borrowing from such a large reference set.
It is worth noting that history was not always kind either to Howard, Catherine, or to the Huguenots. One can imagine the subject of either article needing a hug at some time.
As a postscript, please note that this edition of Chambers’s Encyclopaedia is now offered free of charge to anyone willing to collect it. I’ll probably regret it when the digital apocalypse arrives, but right now we need the shelf space.