Closing the Book

Maybe I should blame Jiminy Cricket.

Silly, of course. After all, the Encyclopaedia Britannica had 244 years of history behind it. That’s more than enough to outlast the Disney filmstrips that insisted the word was spelled “E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-E-D-I-A.”

But it couldn’t outlast the times. In an age of hyper-digital look-up and research, a $1,395 set of books just didn’t make bottom-line sense anymore. Which is why EB recently announced that the current 32-volume print edition (published in 2010) would be the last.

The thought depresses me.

I understand why they did it. The books weren’t even that big a part of their business these days. A news report estimated that less than 1 percent of Britannica’s sales come from the big, thick, books; the shift to electronic and online editions tipped past the balance point long ago.

But I’m a book person. I always have been.

I don’t mean that I eschew online sources or even (whisper the name) Wikipedia. Far from it. But I’ve always had a passion for physical reference books. Dictionaries, thesauruses, almanacs, Associated Press stylebooks – my wife and I have even sworn that if we ever win the lottery , a full edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will go on the shopping list.

Some of it’s the permanence. My Merriam-Webster isn’t likely to be hit by cybervandals tomorrow or be unreadable if the power goes down. (So long as the flashlight has batteries, anyway.)

Some of it’s the depth of experience you can get. Older editions of the Britannica had articles by Albert Einstein, Harry Houdini and Isaac Asimov, for Pete’s sake. Never mind the unseen watchdogs known as editors, a concept that still seems to elude many online sites.

There’s even a comfort to the heft. When your little sisters are invading your room, after all, you don’t want to be left trying to defend yourself with a DVD.

But for me, that’s all secondary. The real value to a reference book – an honest-to-goodness real, tangible book – is serendipity.

Dip in. Read. Just for fun. No plans, no map.

I love the Internet. And it’s invaluable when I need to track something down. But there’s times when you want to know something, and times when you just want to know.

Which is why, as a kid, I would dip through my folks’ Random House dictionary, swimming through cool words and their origins.

It’s why, as a college student, the AP stylebook became my nighttime pleasure reading, one of the best trivia manuals I had run across at the time.

It’s why my folks grabbed a cheap Encyclopedia Americana at a library book sale, or why I kept getting new World and New York Times almanacs for Christmas every year (one of which even introduced us to this curious search engine called Google). Those weren’t just homework references, they were pastimes.

Knowledge for its own sake. For the sheer joy of it.

For all that we’re in an Information Age, there seems to be less of that somehow.

I hope that survives. Because in the end, that was the real value of the well-bound books with the thistle on the spine: the hope (illusory or not) that you really could know it all, the feeling that you could dive in at any point and come up with something you had never thought about before. Something you had never even thought about thinking before.

The curiosity that leads someone to want to know more.

Not bad for 29 pounds of books, huh?

So thank you, EB. May your physical memories be many and your virtual trials few.

Hail, Britannica. And farewell.

One Reply to “Closing the Book”

  1. I loved this column! You beautifully expressed so many thoughts and feelings I had when I heard about the demise of the printed Encyclopaedia Britannica.

    When I was just a kid my folks squeezed enough money from their then-tight budget to buy the complete set of World Book Encyclopaedia and Childcraft books. They came with a Year Book each year that updated information in the encyclopaedias and gave an overview of the past year. My two brothers and I lived in those books! They served us well through elementary school, high school and even college.

    A couple of years ago my parents sold a second home here in Colorado and one of the last things to go was the set of World Books. We called every charity, library, school and organization we could think of to donate them to. Not one of them would take them. It broke out hearts to put them in the trash, but that’s where they went.

    If we had figured cost per use, those books would have turned out to be one of the best investments my folks ever made in our family’s education and imagination.

    I still keep my printed dog-eared dictionaries, thesauri, and style manuals. I wouldn’t trade the serendipity of discovery each visit brings me for anything.

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