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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Encylopedia Britannica Ends Printed Edition

A sign of the times: after 244 years of publication, the Encyclopedia Britannica has published its last edition on paper. It's still available online, for $70 a year - but even so, your Head Trucker can't help but feel a little sad that this venerable, once-prized work has gone the way of stagecoaches, clipper ships, and steam locomotives. At its peak in 1990, the print edition sold 120,000 copies; the last edition, 2010, has sold only 8,000, with 4,000 left in stock at $1395 a set, if you want to get one.

As a business professor once told the class I was in:  economics wins out every time.  The Britannica's sales shrank in the face of much-cheaper digital rivals like Encarta in the 1990's, and of course the free, though untrustworthy, Wikipedia in the last decade.  And then, of course, there's the simple fact of speed and convenience:  we collectively tend always to choose the faster, easier way to go somewhere or do something, don't we?  Which is why I'd bet a hundred dollars not 19 out of 20 of my truckbuddies reading this have ever taken a train trip (amusement park rides don't count); and a much lower percentage have taken one in a Pullman.  Believe me when I tell you:  it was the only way to travel, and still is, even on the wretched Amtrak.

Now your Head Trucker will admit that in the last few years, he has rarely bothered to get up from his desk chair and actually go open a volume of his two sets of encyclopedias; still, it's a comfort just to sit here and glance up at them, the gold embossing on their spines still gleaming modestly after all these years, the safe, secure repository of facts, the distilled essence of the accumulated labors of the human mind, toiling down through the centuries towards the light of knowledge.  It's enough to know that they are there if I need them, and I wouldn't trade them for a speckled pony.

I began the encylopedia habit early, and I think that was great good fortune.  When I was 7, my mom traded a funky vibrating-massaging lounger - one those of new space-age things that seemed so cool at the time - to a girlfriend for a set of the 1962 World Book Encyclopedia.  Which was an enormous boon to to this only child:  for years thereafter when there were no other kids around to play with, which was more often than not, I could amuse myself quite nicely with reading through the World Book volumes, surfing them, if you will, as we do the Internet today, skipping with fascination from Soap to Sarcophagus to Swahili to Silhouette and on and on and on.

I soaked up a lot of geography and history that way, by a sort of osmosis instead of careful study; still, I think it helped a lot to make me usually one of the smartest kids in school, grade by grade, and it certainly stimulated my innate love of reading.  There was also a smaller companion set of Childcraft, a soft-and-easy encyclopedia for really young kids, which of course I disdained because I wanted to learn all the grown-up stuff - nevertheless, it contains many wonderful old folk and fairy tales, and poems, with beautiful illustrations - unlike the gruesome, maniacal fare that is pumped into kids now, with predictable results.

By the time I was in high school, I would have liked a set of Britannica - but after the parents divorced when I was 10, finances were tight on both sides, so that wasn't ever a possibility. But long after I'd finished with all my schooling, in 1995 I was thrilled to discover a complete set of the 1964 Britannica in a book sale at the public library - and to my astonishment, the price was only $10 for the whole set, which looks just like the picture at the top of this post. Of course I immediately grabbed a cart and loaded it up with the 24 volumes, paid the fussy queen at the reference desk who sneered silently at my purchase, and trundled merrily home with my treasure. Which for several years thereafter, I dipped into time after time, luxuriating in it. Booklover - what can I say?

Though I will tell you that the Britannica's editors made a very bad mistake in 1974, when they got the deranged idea of dividing up this precious resource into a Micropedia, Macropedia, and Propedia. None of which made any damn sense to anyone outside the editorial offices, and which made it damn near impossible to look up anything at all in subsequent editions. Which is why I prize my 1964 set all the more; plus the fact that many of its articles are written by experts in their field. The article on relativity, to take but one example, was written by none other than A. Einstein. I didn't understand the theory of relativity any better after I had read his article than I had before, but still - fellow booklovers will understand the delicious feeling of being able to meet the great and the good right there on the page.

Not that anyone cares about that sort of thing now except a few cobwebbed antiquarians like me. Crowd-sourcing, the hive mind, the Borg - ah yes, that is the way of the future that will lead us all into, not Truth, but Truthiness, in Stephen Colbert's famous bon mot. In a world peopled with special snowflakes, all sparkling, fragile, and enormously sensitive, pained and distressed by every little interruption to their ceaseless hum of self-congratulation, how dare any snowflake appear larger, smarter, or better than anyone else? How dare any blade of grass grow a millimeter taller than its neighbors? How dare anyone be uncool? Or different? How dare they!

And so the world moves, by its own volition, from dumb to dumber to dumbass - quite merrily, and nobody minds a bit. Grammar, spelling, multiplication tables, cursive writing (it's so haa-aarrd!), Latin, French, poetry, music, art - all these have now ceased to be taught in both elementary and high schools, with rare exceptions. Why should they? We have the Internet! We have Wikipedia! We don't need to actually know anything, or remember anything. We have digital memories!

No doubt a day is coming soon when memory itself will be as devalued as my encyclopedia volumes, for can you not forsee, my friends, the coming digital implants in your brains - why would you need to remember even your own name, when with a wink and a shrug of the left shoulder, you can call up the entire contents of Wikipedia, Facebook, and every single episode of The Simpsons? All endlessly replaying through what's left of your neural cortex, and continually updated in real-time by 7 billion of your fellow men, all wired together like you in one giant, omniscient, undeviating World Mind?

Oh and of course, all the porn you could ever want, 24/7, without even having to flip a page or click a mouse. Tell me, my friends - who could ask for more?

An interview with Jorge Cauz, president of Britannica:


Greg said...

I remember the Encyclopedia Britannica, savior of my high school term papers. It's sad to see it go.

But I will say that I have ridden a few trains (from Silverton to Durango, CO, as well as an overnight trip in Russia and a trek to Segovia in Spain).

Tim said...

Like Greg, the Britannica was a great help at school, and I remember giggling at the anatomy pictures when 12 years old, in those days you didn't see nudity anywhere else!

Wouldn't mind having the Simpsons on a mental tap, provided their was David Attenborough's wild life documentaries to provide a balance, do you get them on HBO?

Russ Manley said...

Greg - the D&S is a touristy thing, but the others sound like the real deal, good for you.

Tim - I unplugged myself from the Borg about twenty years ago, no cable since.

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

Russ I understand, you haven't missed much. Have a great weekend.

Russ Manley said...

You too, man.

Greg said...

Russ, the trip is Russia was an overnight from Moscow to (then) Leningrad. Our sleeper car had four beds -- two on the ground, two unfolding from the upper walls; I definitely wasn't a Pullman.

Russ Manley said...

Yes, I've seen pictures of those European sleepers, where you're expected to sleep in a compartment with half a dozen strangers, with all your clothes on. Not my idea of comfort at all.

I'm old enough to have ridden some of the great streamliners before Amtrak came along. It was wonderful.

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