Oh, G’s

Stephen Wilhite led an animated life.

OK, his is not a name that leaps to mind like Maya Angelou, Steve Jobs or (heaven help us) Justin Bieber. But if you’ve been online at all, you touched his work. Wilhite, who died recently at 74, invented the GIF, the moving photos that turned social media into a special effect out of Harry Potter.

He also, years after their invention, triggered one of the internet’s most long-running minor debates with just five words:

“It’s pronounced ‘jif,’ not ‘gif.’”

Yes, like the peanut butter. That had actually been part of the documentation for  the Graphics Interchange Format since day one … which of course most people never saw. And in a jiffy (or even a giffy), we reconfirmed two essential truths of our species.

First, that people will argue about absolutely ANYTHING, and the flames only get hotter as the stakes get lower. Online battles over the “proper” pronunciation of GIF still rage back and forth with the intensity of a Star Wars movie, joining such timeless classics as “that stupid call in the Super Bowl” and “who needs the Oxford comma, anyway?”

After a while, the exchange gets pretty predictable:

“Well, the G stands for ‘Graphic,’ so of course it’s a hard G!”

“The U in SCUBA stands for ‘Underwater,’ are you going to start saying scuh-ba?”

“It’s like ‘gap’ or ‘get!’”

“No, it’s like ‘genius’ or ‘giraffe.’”

“Jif sounds stupid!”

“You sound stupid!”


Verily, this is a philosophical discourse that Socrates himself would envy.

The second essential truth is more subtle. Namely, that the meaning of an idea doesn’t start and stop with its creator.

Any literature fans reading this will recognize this immediately as “the death of the author,” Stripped of PhD language (you’re welcome), this basically says that the author isn’t the only one who gets to decide what a story’s about. Just as an invention can be created for one purpose and used for another, a story can change when it reaches the reader’s hands. Yes, the author has intents and purposes, but the reader brings their own experience to the tale, which may lead them to discover something quite different.

It’s a little scary and a little exciting. It means that reading a story or watching a movie isn’t just a matter of cracking a code (“what did they mean by that?”) but a process of adventure and discovery (“what will I find here?”) J.R.R. Tolkien called it the difference between allegory – a strict this-means-that definition by the writer – and applicability.

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence,” he wrote. “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

That’s challenging.

It means that while stories shape us, we can also shape them right back. It means that we don’t just have to accept ideas in couch-potato fashion. We can grapple with them, challenge them and take them in new directions. All sorts of concepts can be transformed this way, from fiction to ideologies to language itself.

So if 20 years down the road, the “hard G” folks win the GIF battle for good (or even for jood), it’s not an error or a crime. It just means the story wasn’t over.

It’s your tale. Choose as you will.

Just be gentle – or gracious – to those on the other side.

Living in the Real World

Nearly 11 months ago, my world pretty much went home for the duration due to the Great Pandemic. (And what’s so great about it?) As you might imagine, it’s been a pretty quiet place.

Well, except for the virtual theater rehearsals.

And the online choir I just joined.

And the streaming concerts that get Missy so excited.

And being invited to join my church’s vestry this week.

And, and, and, and …

Ok. Weird paradox. I barely leave my house these days. And I’m busier than I’ve ever been. Not just work busy, but life busy.

Somewhere, Clifford Stoll is probably shaking his head in amusement at himself. Again.

Don’t remember Stoll? He had a brief national spotlight in the 1980s after tracking a 75-cent accounting error at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory all the way to an East German hacker selling information to Soviet spies. (If you’re curious, that adventure is recounted in a book called The Cuckoo’s Egg.)  In the ‘90s, he again drew national attention with his assertions – first in a magazine article, and then a book called Silicon Snake Oil – that this brave new online world wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and could never live up to what had been promised.

Now there’s a lot that Stoll actually got right. He argued that online education would be easier to promote than to achieve. He noted that as more voices came online, the strength AND weakness of the internet would be that “all voices are heard” – including those of the deceptive, the ill-informed, and the malicious.

But what gets remembered – as we seem to do with any of us, alas – are the misses. The prediction that e-commerce would never get off the ground. That no online database could ever replace the daily newspaper. And that computers, of necessity, would always be a medium of isolation rather than community.


“Wrong? Yep,” Stoll commented publicly 15 years later, adding that “Now, whenever I think I know what’s happening, I temper my thoughts: Might be wrong, Cliff …”

The internet is certainly not a utopia, to be sure. It holds our best and our worst. After all, it was made by humans.

But that’s just it. It is a human world.

We’ve found ways to share our laughter and our anger. We argue and we comfort. We can come together in ways that are radically disturbing or utterly heartwarming.

And yes, we even find ways to sing in choirs and make best friends that we’ve never met in person.

Forget the “virtual” moniker. This is as much a part of the “real world” as any. And if we’ve kept any sanity in the wake of an upside-down year, the outlet this provides may be one big reason why.

We’re still together. Even apart.

I’m not going to argue that it’s perfect. Too many have poor access or no access at all, and that needs to be addressed. And there are still things that I want to do when the pandemic walls come down – perform live theater again, hug a friend, send Missy off on a Friday night out with her friends without worry.

But right here, right now, for all its flaws – this is a world worth having. One that’s let a lot of us keep friends close and possibilities closer. (Even while staying beyond six feet.)

I hope those possibilities live on after the crisis is over. That we continue to realize how strong our connections to each other can be, even when tested.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get ready for choir practice.

Inside Out

If anyone is feeling a little confused these days, you have my complete sympathy.

On the one hand, coronavirus news has flooded the airwaves, the front pages, and the social media outlets from here to the asteroid belt. (I’m happy to say that Ceres has yet to report its first case.) In among the unceasing reminders on how to wash our hands – our kindergarten teachers must be so disappointed – we’re constantly told to do our bit to make sure the virus doesn’t spread. “Stay home if you’re sick.” “Isolate.” “Quarantine in place.”

Introverts everywhere, our hour has come.

On the other hand, this is also an election year. And so we’re also being bombarded with images of campaign rallies on every side, urging people to let the nation hear our voice. “Get up.” “Get out.” “Show your support.”

So we desperately need to engage … and we desperately need to separate.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of a first-rate intelligence – the ability to hold two conflicting ideas in the mind simultaneously and still function – is making more and more sense.

I know, we’ll work through it. Not just because both elections and public health are necessary. But because frankly, this kind of chaos and tension is nothing new for us.

We’ve been dealing with this for generations.

It’s a phenomenon that Bill Bishop addressed 16 years ago in a book called “The Big Sort.” Given the ability to live where they want, he noted, people mostly choose to live near people like themselves. By itself, that doesn’t sound like a bad thing. After all, who doesn’t want to get along with the neighbors?

But politics in a democracy depends on multiple voices engaging and finding common ground. That’s one thing when you may be constantly brushing against friends and neighbors who hold different perspectives and maybe challenge your views. But if more and more of the people you encounter are ones like you, where your beliefs and assumptions are taken for granted, that skill of engagement and compromise has less opportunity to be used.

What doesn’t get used, withers.

The process had already been accelerating with the increased mobility in the decades since World War II, when the internet and social media came along and sent it into hyperdrive. People had more power than ever to choose their “neighbors,” to choose their news sources … in a way, to choose their reality.

And when that reality finally collides against another, when the bubbles burst, the result becomes not compromise but conflict.

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture of American democracy or too dark a picture of the online world. There’s always been a certain amount of conflict within the process, and even outright violence. (You could ask Alexander Hamilton, for example … but better do it quick, he’s got a duel at dawn.) And the same internet that can isolate has also introduced friends that would have never met, opened up experiences that would have been unreachable for many, and allowed outright explosions of imagination and creativity. It can and does allow for increased connection, even when isolated by disability, circumstance, or, yes, illness.

Politics and the internet are tools. They can be used for good or ill. And right now, they’re throwing one of our most basic conflicts into stark relief.

The need to engage. The desire to separate.

Long after the coronavirus has been dealt with, that clash will still be there. And it’ll still be the real challenge. These days, even under a quarantine, one can stay within the walls of their home and still be connected to the world.

But the quarantines of our minds – now THAT’S a barrier. And one we’ll have to resolve for as long as we’re living together on this planet.

Though I hear Ceres is very nice this time of year.

Hold the Phone

The Digital Age has its new poster child.

On Wednesday, when most of us were learning firsthand about bomb cyclones, an Australian man got out of his car to find a visitor waiting outside his home – with a bow and arrow at the ready. So the man followed normal 21st century safety procedure.

Namely, he pulled out his phone and started taking pictures.

The archer fired. The arrow was on target. And according to Reuters, the homeowner walked away with barely a scratch.  Why? Because the arrow hit and killed the phone instead.

OK, show of hands. How many of us have wanted to do that to a smartphone, just once?

Thought so.

Our world of tiny phones and big social networks has come up for a lot of mockery over the years, sometimes justifiably so. People have walked into manholes while texting (and then, predictably, tried to sue). Fatal car accidents have resulted from drivers with one hand on the wheel and both eyes on a phone. In our time, we’ve been just an arm’s length away from the manipulations of political saboteurs, the boasts of killers, and even the rise of Justin Bieber.

So is it any wonder that when Facebook and Instagram went kersplat for many people on Wednesday, the mass frustration was mixed with a little joking relief?

“Son, I wasn’t alive for the Donner Party or Pearl Harbor, but I am old enough to remember when both Facebook and Instagram were down at the same time during that terrible winter of ’19,” comedian John Fugelsang joked.

The memes! Will no one think of the memes?

More seriously, though – it’s human nature to be frustrated with the tools we depend on. It was true of the first computer. It was true of the automobile. It was probably true of the first ancient human to deliberately set a branch on fire, and then later discover his teenage son had burned up Dad’s favorite spear. “What do you mean, you wanted to see what would happen?”

But for every frustration, our tools also open a door. Sometimes some pretty amazing ones.

My wife Heather is often stuck at home because of chronic illness. Her phone opens the world to her, allowing her the experience and interaction that her body might otherwise bar.

An acquaintance of mine has a love of reading and a tiny apartment. His devices give him access to a library that would overwhelm a four-bedroom house.

I have dear friends halfway across the country whom I’ve never met, yet “visit” regularly. We’ve shared joys, sorrows, and horrible jokes as easily as any next-door neighbor.

I’m sure most of you could add more. The weather report in a pocket. The research library that’s open at 2 a.m. before a term paper is due.  The chance to quickly learn a home repair, or some language basics, or just figure out the lyric you could never understand on the radio. On and on and on.

Sure, our tech can frustrate. It can be used badly, even horribly. But it doesn’t have to dehumanize. Used well, it can bring us together and open up possibilities that put a science fiction writer to shame.

It’s up to us. It always has been. And that is both a frightening and a wonderful possibility.

The future’s in our hands. What will we make of it?

Hopefully, something a little better than target practice.

Tall Tale

The man known as Shi seemed to move through life with ease. Not many could claim a billionaire status, a friendship with the likes of Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, a resume that included fighting poverty and directing an internet economic research center. But, inevitably, the Chinese authorities caught up with him.

Why inevitable? Well, to start with, Shi is 17 years old. And a junior high-school dropout. Oh, and one other thing – not one of his accomplishments actually existed. Except maybe for having 10,000 followers on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter until his account disappeared.

“Shi went viral on Chinese social media websites after his crafted online identity was exposed,” Reuters reported in its Sept. 12 story, which noted the Photoshopped pictures, the false claims and even a faked official Chinese  news release that had gone out before northern Chinese police announced their investigation. The story also included a statement from the authorities that “we will punish those who spread rumors online with an adverse impact on the society.”

Is it just me, or could they be busy for a while?

By now, I hope, it’s not exactly news that it’s easy to lie online. In the early days, a New Yorker cartoon famously claimed that “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Today, the fictions and false claims fill our world.

We know about the fraudulent warnings about computer security , complete with viruses ready to infect the unwary.

Or the posts that call for an “Amen” for a (nonexistent) sick child or claim to break a (false) limit on the number of Facebook friends you see.

And of course, there’s the  zillions of political claims and “articles” that fall apart with 30 seconds of research or less, but get circulated and recirculated, because – well, everyone knows it’s true, right? (And the tendency for real articles to get denounced as “fake news” by their subjects doesn’t help matters.)

Like many an old scam, it seems so obvious from the sidelines, yet it keeps going and going. Why?

Easy. We love a good story.

We are storytelling creatures at heart. Where there are humans, there have been stories, whether it’s ancient hunters talking about their kills over the campfire, neighbors gossiping about their friends over the backyard fence, or Hollywood telling yet one more tale of love and glory. Stories excite and entertain, they inform and educate, they give us a way to make sense of the world  even when creating new worlds of the imagination.

It’s one of our best traits.

But … it also means that we can be quick to believe a story when we shouldn’t. Or to see one that isn’t there, pulling together unconnected events into deep conspiracy. And the more we get invested in a story, the harder it is to pull free from it, and the more vocally we defend it.

That’s something every con artist knows. Sure, it’s usually greed that initially hooks the “mark.” But the fuel that keeps a con going is the victim’s investment in the tale. The story has to be true, it must be true – not least because the consequences of it not being true are too embarrassing to think about. A true story means you’re smart or lucky. A false one means you’re a schmuck. Which one do you want to believe?

I’ll say it again – it is not bad to like stories. But like any of the best human instincts, it can be misused or waylaid. Check the stories you hear, especially if you agree with them. Test the claims, examine the evidence. Suspension of disbelief is great for enjoying a novel or movie, but it makes for terrible citizenship.

Be aware.

It’s the only way to know a sure thing from a Shi thing.

Words to the Wise

The seeker of truth gasped as he reached the summit. The all-seeing oracle stood before him, its single green eye piercing the mysteries of the universe. Surely, understanding was at hand.

“Oh, great one,” the acolyte proclaimed, “share your wisdom with this unworthy pilgrim, that even the smallest crumbs of enlightenment may illuminate his way.”

And lo, the oracle did consider, and the eye did peer, and in what seemed mere moments the deathless words appeared.


Um. Yeah.

No, I haven’t turned my talents toward writing purple-prose fantasy novels, or inspiring the next great cult movement. (Between the Denver Broncos and “Hamilton,” all the good fanatics have been skimmed off, anyway.) Instead, I’ve been quietly amusing myself with one of the Internet’s more curious toys, the “Inspirobot.”

This has actually been around for a couple of years at inspirobot.me, but it’s only in recent months that it’s attracted mass attention. Essentially, it’s an instant “inspirational poster” generator, designed to pull up an enlightening backdrop and randomly generated timeless wisdom.

Trust me. Deepak Chopra this ain’t. So far, the words for the ages have included gems such as:

  • “A dream and a suit kills.”
  • “Quit being.”
  • “What seems cool to musicians, seems uncool to the person behind the mask.”
  • “Prepare for ambition. Not imprisonment.”

It kind of makes the magic 8-ball seem deep and profound, doesn’t it?

Once in a while, it’ll actually hit something kind of … well, understandable, if not actually deep. Things like “Be happy, or forget it.”  Or “Don’t be kind. Be extremely kind.” Or my personal favorite, which cannot be run in its entirety in a family newspaper, “Sometimes one needs to call a s***show a s***show.”

Simultaneously, I find this comforting, and frightening, and maybe even a cause for hope.

The comforting part is simple. Our computers, which have mastered chess, triumphed at go, and embarrassed the greatest Jeopardy masters in history, still create hilariously bad fortune-cookie aphorisms. So there’s still one post-journalism job market left open for now.

The frightening part is how easy it is to distill meaning from even the most awkwardly constructed phrases. ( I’m still waiting for a philosophical movement to begin around “Liars find meaning in grown men” or “A glass of wine beats levitation.”) Many people do it every day with their favored politicians, personalities, and public figures, reinterpreting their words and actions to fit a comfortable world view. Once again, it’s all too easy to invoke the Paul Simon rule: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

And the cause for hope? However badly we may strain the search for meaning, we are still searching for it. We want things to make sense, even if we don’t always go about it in the right way or look in the right places. That’s at least the first step toward building something.

Of course, it still helps to have good material. And that’s why I’ve started to step away from the oracle of the Inspirobot and toward the Way of Gil. My six-year-old nephew has begun writing down his own dictates for life, and I rather like the direction:

“Good sport when you win but be nice.”

“Think, get so you know and reber (remember) so you get a A+.”

“Have fun, don’t play too ruff. But have fun!”

Mister Gil, the mountaintop awaits.

Just My Type

I opened the covers of The Empire Strikes Back Storybook and blinked, stunned. Sure it had been a long time. But how had I forgotten this?

I hurried upstairs to Heather, the thin hardcover volume in my hand.

“Look, hon,” I said, half-sarcastic, half-awed. “Words.”

“Really?” she responded in the same tone.

I held the 35-year-old book open, careful of the ancient masking tape over the binding. There, among the plentiful, full-color photographs of starships and dueling Jedi, was column after column of gray type. Not thin columns, either – roughly 52 pages of words packed like a legion of Imperial stormtroopers, a children’s book that demanded reading, insisted on it.

My wife and I looked at it for a moment in wonder, than at each other. The same thought was on both our minds.

They’d never let this get printed today.

The book had arrived in a stack from Mom, the latest round of liberating the basement from our long-ago possessions. The fact that even my picture books had been so reading-heavy didn’t completely surprise me – I’ve been an avid reader since the age of two and a half, and could even remember using the tattered Star Wars book to act out scenes with my action figures.

But I’d forgotten how much of an honest-to-goodness book it was. As opposed to a picture book with barely-disguised captions.

I don’t mean to sound jaded or old-fashioned here. But I really do wonder if the same book would survive in the hands of modern editors and publishers, when “Show, don’t tell” has all but become a mantra. And not just in children’s publishing.

For a while, one of Heather’s prize possessions was a 1985 issue of Cosmopolitan, just for sheer contrast. Fewer pictures, lengthy articles that might have to “jump” twice within the issue before being completed. Compare it to a modern issue with its splashed photos and large-font one liners and it’s like holding Robinson Crusoe next to Go, Dog, Go!

You could make the same comparison with newspapers, where the emphasis has long been on more photos and graphics, shorter stories. Or in half a dozen other genres and formats, especially when you add digital and online publishing into the mix. Folks want pictures, video, interactive graphics, cute kittens!

Now there’s some truth to that. The author Spider Robinson once noted that reading is a newcomer as a means of acquiring information and one that requires a lot of work compared to just … looking. And with the decline in children who read for fun (31 percent of kids aged 6 to 17, compared to 37 percent in 2010), it might seem like we’ve got to pull out all the stops to hook kids back in to the habit.

But I wonder.

What if the problem isn’t the format, but the content?

Remember Harry Potter? The boy wizard dragged a whole generation of kids (and their parents and older siblings) through seven increasingly thick volumes of adventures. It became a point of pride to have read each book on its publication day.

There have been other crazes since, if not as intense. (What could be?) In the United Kingdom, in fact, series like The Hunger Games and Twilight (yes, I went there) are credited with bringing up the number of child readers.

Give kids a story they’re interested in, it seems, and they’ll chew up text just fine. Adults, too, I’d bet. If you’re interested in the subject, a longer story is a blessing, not a curse.

By all means, have cool pictures and all the other bells and whistles. Heaven knows my storybooks had art that popped. But remember the fundamentals. When you want people to drive, you sell cars. When you want people to read, you sell words.

Good words. And plenty of ‘em.

We can do our part, “selling” by example – it’s almost proverbial that when parents read, kids read, too. And over time, if enough of us reward good words with a good audience, someone’s going to see the chance of making good money.

Someday, just maybe, our prints will come.

Living in the Eye

It is with deepest regret today that I lay to rest a fine old saying: “Character is who you are when no one is watching.”

Not because character has become obsolete. But the idea of nobody watching has.

Any doubts in that direction were themselves laid to rest by former Governor Mitt Romney, whose unintended infomercial (“The United States! Now with 47 percent fewer taxpayers!”) has become fodder for pundits, comics and chat rooms across the country. Mr. Romney, of course, thought he was in a quieter corner of the campaign trail, a closed fund-raiser where anything said in the room would stay in the room.

But it wasn’t Vegas. And it wasn’t private.

Nothing really is, in the age of the Internet.

Lest you think you I like to pick on Mitt, he’s just the latest victim. A similar event four years ago put Barack Obama on the hot seat, thanks to an infamous remark about “bitter” voters who “cling to guns and religion.” He, too, found that closed doors and an open society don’t mix very will.

If only they had learned the Restaurant Rule.

There’s two restaurant rules, actually. The first I originally read in a Dave Barry piece (and later found he had stolen it from Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson): “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.” It’s a useful standard, and for more than just waiters; I find, for example, that I can tell a lot about a person by how they treat our developmentally disabled ward Missy.

But it’s the second restaurant rule I’m thinking of. The one taught by my mother long ago, in two parts:

  1. Always assume that what you say at a restaurant can be heard at the next table.
  2. Never assume that no one you know is at that table.

The last time I brought this up with anyone, I was thinking of Facebook, where a whispered talk at a back table can reach the maitre d’ in moments. But between YouTube, Twitter, camera phones and more, any gathering spot can become an Internet sensation in moments. Never mind Big Brother watching you – it’s Little Brother, the friend or neighbor with curiosity and a smartphone, whose eye can reach farther than any Orwellian bureaucrat ever dreamed.

This could create the most honest politicians on the planet. Or the phoniest ones ever.

Honest, because we can see and hear them in their most unguarded moments and learn what truths lie behind the campaign programming. What point is there to hiding in a searchlight?

Phony, if the candidates realize there are no unguarded moments and start wearing the mask at all times, public and private. Shine a light – and there’s no one there.

Personally, I’d urge the honesty, and not just because it gives me better news stories. Sooner or later, masks slip, even if only for a moment. That’s when the damage comes, not necessarily because of what you said or did, but because you tried to bury it. (Right, Mr. Nixon?)

But remember, candidates and candidates-to-be, there is always an audience. If that tempers your remarks, if it holds back your wilder impulses, if it means more biting of the tongue than biting remarks – that’s not a bad thing.

That’s not phoniness. That’s discretion.

So, let me remind you: You have the right to remain silent. (And when it comes to television ads, we’d really prefer it.) Anything you say can and probably will come back to haunt you in the court of public opinion.

Remember the restaurant. Consider the customers.

And always tip the waiter when you’re done.

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.