(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
Tuesday, 12 March 2012, a day that will not reside in anyone’s memory for any great period of time. At least not for the reason I’m referencing it. That’s the day I heard that after 244 years the Encyclopaedia Britannica will no longer be printing a hard copy, though they expect to maintain an online presence. First published in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1768, the Britannica became famous for its quality of writing and expert contributors. In an effort to remain current, it had begun publishing every other year. In an earlier, more leisurely era, most encyclopedias’ major revisions were done about once a decade. The 2010 Britannica 32-volume set will be the last. Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., is assuring people that the company will maintain a digital edition for a cost of $70 a year; a great savings in money, currently $1,400 for the 32-volume set, and shelf space. In an effort of keep its readers, the company is marking the end of the print version by making the contents of its website available free for one week. By the time you read this that week will have expired.
When I shared this woeful news with Walt he said, “True, but it has no significance.” In other words, overtaken by events. Our knowledge of our world is growing at ever increasing speeds. We live in an immediate gratification society where we expect to have the most current information at our fingertips 24/7. We don’t even say twenty-four hours a day for seven days a week. Still, it makes me sad.
I fondly remember my first reading of an encyclopedia. I’d learned to spell the word with Jiminy Cricket. Then we went to stay with my father’s parents while he was transferred to a new duty station. My grandparents had a small bookshelf at the top of the stairs of their Philadelphia row house. On the second shelf was a series of red bound books approximately 5 by 7 inches and an inch and a half or so thick. They had gotten it for my father when he was going through school. It had been published during what we now refer to as the Great Depression. First pass, I paged through all the volumes looking for pictures. Most drawings were pen and ink, but each book had an insert of photos, black and white, of course. Then I began reading. I learned about Afghanistan, an exotic place famous for keeping the British out. There was no United Nations and the League of Nations had already become a non-entity. It was the Great War, as the Second World War with Germany was still several years off when the books were printed. We did have 48 states. I wish we still had those books. As a snapshot of an era, they were a treasure. Within a year, we were living in Rhode Island and I was frequently babysitting for the neighbor’s four children. After I saw them to bed I would begin reading the family’s encyclopedias. Yes, they had two! One was a children’s edition with many stories on animals, our historic figures, and crafts. They also had a World Book. The children’s set had been the premium gift for their purchase of the adult version. I was in heaven. I couldn’t wait to be asked to sit for their children at night so that I would have quiet time to read. This set told about the world I knew, not the musty version in my grandparent’s house. I could still smell the newness of these volumes. I think I may have been the first to open some of them.
As I entered 8th grade, we moved to Italy. The DoD school we attended had a room devoted to being a library, but we were bussed to school just before class and taken home as class was dismissed. Unless your teacher scheduled the library during class time to enable you to research a topic of her choosing we had no access. My parents decided they had to afford an encyclopedia. By then I had read all or part of many of the offerings on the market. I preferred Collier’s, which seemed to be concise, readable, and more academically rigorous than some without being quite so sophisticated as the Britannica where I had difficulty understanding many of the articles in the sciences. Our parents bought us a 24-volume set of Colliers, which came with the promise of the annual for the next decade and the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf. When the boxes came, Moma and I went through the opening of the new books as one was then taught to do for the first opening of hardbound volumes. We lovingly took each book and set it, closed, spine down on a table. Then we opened the hard covers and gently ran our fingers near the binding. We then opened a few pages from the front holding the center pages together, and again ran our fingers close to the binding; then a few pages from the back, again pressing down softly close to the spine. We kept repeating until the book was open flat on the table. Setting that book aside we would resume the exercise with the next volume. They smelled so good. And as we caressingly opened the pages we got tantalizing views of the articles that I could barely wait to read. Moma was more interested in the Harvard Shelf. It promised that having read all of its volumes one would have the breadth of knowledge offered for a liberal arts degree. For the next several months, when I returned from school, I would find Moma curled in her favorite corner of the sofa, reading. She would barely be able to sit still and would begin the afternoon’s conversation with, “Oh, wait till you hear what I just read!” And then she would begin with the best of what she had found that afternoon. Thus began my introduction to Plato, Herodotus, Dante and so many others.
Now we are being encouraged to use e-readers, or to do our research on the Internet. All of which has much to recommend it. The tactile reward of holding a book, that solid embodiment of learning and entertainment; however, is slipping away. The sense that a synopsis of the world’s knowledge could be held in one persons mind, always somewhat apocryphal, has vaporized into the ether. If you still are lucky enough to own a set of hardbound volumes of an encyclopedia, save and preserve it. You possess an historic treasure.
The last word:
We still have that Harvard Five-Foot Shelf, but, alas, no print encyclopedia. It did not make the cut on one of our moves.
Keep your sense of humor.