Rue Britannica

by Jim Longworth

In 2005, Esquire editor AJ Jacobs set out to become the smartest man in the world, and so he spent one full year reading every volume of Encyclopedia Britannica, and the 44 million words contained therein. From here on, anyone else wishing to duplicate his feat may not be able to do so in the exact same fashion. That’s because earlier this month, the company announced it would cease publication of its encyclopedia in book form, and instead will issue the historic tome in digital formats. First published in 1768, Britannica is the oldest English language encyclopedia still in production, and one of the most reliable reference works in the world. Sadly, the final physical edition of that encyclopedia is this year’s 32-volume set, which went into production in 2010.

My first experience with Britannica was in grade school. I was visiting the home of a friend whose dad was a professor, and there in the educator’s private library was the leather bound EB (and its accompanying set of Great Books of the Western World) occupying a sacred place on the shelves. I felt like Indiana Jones when he first laid eyes on the Ark of the Covenant. The encyclopedias were like a treasured work of art, except better, because their true value is revealed only when you look behind the facade. I wanted the knowledge that they held, and I vowed to own a set some day. That day came in 1987.

Back then, personal computers were becoming standard office fare, but there was no such thing as Google. And so, I relied upon my Britannica each and every day to assist with one project or another. Over time, web searches became more accessible, and the content they delivered more timely, so, I gradually stopped cracking open my macro and micro volumes. In a sense then, I am partially to blame for EB’s demise yet, ironically, I am saddened that it will cease to exist.

I should have seen the handwriting on the wall. After all, the traditional book publishing industry has been struggling for years. Average household spending on books has dropped 14 percent since I purchased my first set of Britannica. Today, the decline continues, both here and abroad. Book sales are down in Ireland by 8.7 percent, in Great Britain by 6.1 percent and by 5.7 percent in the United States. And in Korea, textbooks in physical form will cease to exist by 2014. It’s no wonder, then, that Britannica in its rich, leather binding could no longer justify production of encyclopedias.

Today, e-books and Kindle are all the rage, especially among young people and our highly mobile society. Everything from novels to non-fiction are readily available on various electronic devices, while the internet provides us with up-to-the-minute reference materials without having to wait two years for a set of encyclopedias to arrive at our door.

Yes, I am sentimental about the demise of EB, but nostalgia is no reason to block progress. I searched for arguments that would support my opposition in a logical way, and I found solace in the words of several scholars who warn that physical books serve a practical purpose, and that total reliance on digital books is not advisable. For instance, author Margaret Atwood offers three reasons why we should keep publishing physical books:

1. Solar flares can wipe out digital storage 2. Grid overload can occur, resulting in brownouts, and 3. Internet overload is imminent, which means we will eventually run out of space because of all the spam and porn.

Says Atwood, “Electronic storage is pretty fragile.”

Meanwhile, other aficionados of the printed page offer less scientific, but still compelling reasons to preserve books that we can touch and feel. Writing for the Independent, John Hari observes that a paperbound book “gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration.” And, French author Jean-Phillipe De Tonnac says, “It’s precisely because it’s not immediate, because it doesn’t know what happened five minutes ago in Kazakhstan, or in Charlie Sheen’s apartment — that the book matters.”

Truth is, Britannica will do fine in the digital world because they’ve been at it for a long time. They utilized Lexus Nexus access as far back as 1981, offered a CD ROM version in 1989 and, 10 years later created Still, I mourn the passing of those grand, uniquely smelling, leatherbound books. So, maybe I’ll take a stroll down memory lane with my 1987 volumes, and do what AJ Jacobs did. Maybe I’ll spend a year reading all 44 million words, and become the smartest man in the world. Maybe. But first I need to buy a Kindle book on Jacobs, then Google an article on the side-effects of too much reading. Damn, I’m such a hypocrite.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15)