I had hardly recovered from the hustle and bustle in Basel, when I heard a piece of shocking news: the publishers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced it would no longer continue to publish its printed editions, instead the organisation would focus on its online version.
The amazing source of information was made up with a dozen or so volumes of Micropaedia for the relatively short articles on subjects from A – Z and the balance of volumes, the Macropaedia, for the detailed and scholarly articles which could run anywhere from one page to three hundred pages. First published in 1768 in Edinburgh as a three-volume encyclopaedia, it eventually became a 32-volume set and grew to become one of the most popular living room adornments in the western world.
My first wife gave me a 29-volume set of the Britannica for Christmas in 1975 and I have given myself several hernias over the years as I ceremoniously carried them with me as I moved from apartment to apartment as if it was the climax of a religious ritual. But now, call in the usual suspects because it’s official, the Internet murdered the Encyclopaedia Britannica – come to think of it, it might be a mass murderer because it has most probably killed off most encyclopaedic publications.
I can’t help wondering what will happen to all those redundant, hardly used sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica that sit undisturbed on specially made bookcases or shelves gathering dust? Seven million of them were sold over the years so I can’t imagine that their value as an investment will follow the heady heights of say gold, rare they are not, but they could eventually become items of nostalgia, iconic objects of cult worship by ageing wordmongers and Scrabble addicts who would hold Encyclopaedia Britannica soirees in hushed church halls with random readings from their revered pages followed by that staple of refined refreshment, tea and biscuits. I can’t wait.
The average weight of a single volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica is somewhere around two kilos, so we’re probably talking about more than 50 million kilos or 500,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard for the seven million sets that were sold. Can you imagine what would happen if you put that amount of paper in one place? The earth would tilt on its axis and all those expensive tourbillon wristwatches that previously had nothing to do except look pretty would have to work overtime to fight gravity and maintain some semblance of order.
But back to the Internet. Not so long ago whenever there was mention of computers and computerisation everyone tut tutted and cursed the progress curve because we saw our lives being controlled à la style de 1984 by monstrous banks of computers being fed highly paid programmers and computer boffins. Today, most of us use a desktop or laptop computer that is n times more powerful than rooms full of IBMs and we have become dependent on having instant access to the Internet world. We have evolved into seasoned virtuosos capable of dextrously running our fingers across the computer keyboard to discover, within seconds, everything we want to know about animals from aardvarks to zebras and people from Azorin to Zwingli. And to ensure we continue to be informed via the magic of Internet, on any given day around 250 million photos are up-loaded to Facebook and 864,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. What is even more indicative of our attachment to the Internet is that postal authorities and governments are facing up to the fact that mailing a letter is a thing of the past. At the time of writing this, 294 billion emails are sent every day. As they now say, home is where you hang your @.
Despite the availability of this mass of information, my set of Encyclopaedia Britannica continues to be an integral part of my life and I would have a genuine problem if I tried to get rid of it—because it’s piled up on the floor in my office at home next to an ageing, overloaded and warped Billy bookcase from Ikea to stop it from keeling over.
All of which reminds me of a story about a door to door encyclopaedia salesman who rings on a doorbell and when the door opens there’s a ten year old boy standing there smoking a rather large Havana cigar with an opened beer can in his other hand.
The encyclopaedia salesman is somewhat taken aback by this unexpected sight and takes a few moments to marshal his thoughts and in his usual courteous salesman’s manner says, “Hello young man, is your mother or father home?” The boy looks at the salesman, takes a puff on the cigar followed by a swig of beer from the can and with a disdainful look on his face replies, “What do you think?” Well, you’ve got to laugh haven’t you.
Source: Europa Star June - July 2012 Magazine Issue