Recently I took the full set of my Encyclopedia Britannica to the recycling center. There was a bit of sadness and nostalgia as I made the trip since I had the Britannica since 1967 when my parents first made the financial sacrifice to ensure that their son had all the necessary academic tools to succeed in high school and beyond. But my wife and I are in the process of downsizing and the full set of now out dated knowledge compendium just had to go. I must admit that I got a near hernia lugging out the 26 volumes but I made it back home with a sense of relief that keeping the set served no purpose, especially since a careful study of the value of the complete set of 1967 Britannica was near zero. Also, I had convinced myself that the volumes had no useful purpose since time marches on and of course knowledge is now imparted in a digital format with lightening speed. No need experiencing a hernia carrying the leather-bound books around or having them take up space in our spare room.
I remember vividly the day the encyclopedia salesman came to our door and sat with my parents extolling the virtues of owning a gold embossed set of Britannica, which in the 1960s was the crown jewel of information. I also remember my parents talking quietly about whether they could pay for the set, especially since at that time the sales pitch was to buy the entire 26 volumes at a king’s ransom. No need to buy the Collier’s version of encyclopedia with a volume coming in the mail every month, thereby easing the financial burden. The salesman sweetened the deal when he offered two dictionaries and an atlas at no cost. Weeks later the encyclopedia came to our door in numerous boxes and I was charged with carrying them to my room and organizing them alphabetically on a new book shelf. I was proud as could be as I was the only kid on the block to possess my own Encyclopedia Britannica.
But as the days and weeks went by I never told my parents that the usefulness of the Encyclopedia Britannica was only marginally helpful in my studies. Homework required reading a novel, certainly with the help of those famous Clift Notes, and overpriced textbooks provided all the knowledge I needed to answer a question on the Peloponnesian War (as I write this I must admit that I went to my IPhone to look up how to properly spell Peloponnesian, no paper dictionary for me.) I occasionally pulled out a volume of the Britannica if I was stuck on a topic or needed a bit more information to fill the spaces of my research paper, but I never told my parents that their hard – earned money was not well spent.
It is now common for bits and streams of knowledge to be transmitted via our laptop, phone or PC. Looking up the answer to any question is of course the job of Google- no leather-bound volume, no paging through a large book to find the exact page where the answer is stored, and no links to other sources of information that may help explain in greater detail the question at hand. Paper based information is now largely obsolete, as we search the Net for whatever information we need quickly and easily. There are of course books in our lives that provide information or imagination but even these sources of knowledge or adventure are experiencing a generation gap as those under fifty are not attracted to leafing through paper and carrying around a hard-bound copy. Sit in a subway car or commuter train and keep a mental score of who is reading a book and the answer will be a handful of the AARP crowd. Those book clubs that are starting up around the country are usually populated by the senior set and are often times a week excuse to share a few bottles of wine.
As a retired college professor, I remember those last few years in the classroom when research assignments often did not require trudging to the campus library to take an arm load of books on an obscure topic and then hideaway in a secluded spot and read until sleep deprivation took over. The modern student knows how to surf the web, insert the right word or phrase that will push open the doorway to knowledge, download those nuggets of information and insert them into a paper, too often without attribution. College and local libraries have had to transform their mission from buying and cataloguing books to providing advice to students on the most efficient ways to gather information. Those book stacks of yesteryear are often lonely places.
The information age we live in today does not favor the reader who wants to be immersed in a topic or story requiring time and thought. This is the age of the “quick knowledge fix” – bits of information delivered in a nano second that does not require much reflection. As Sergeant Joe Friday of the 1950s television show Dragnet would say, “Just the facts.” There is nothing wrong with getting information quickly and efficiently to be more productive at work or even in a trivia game, but what is missing in this information age is the reflection, plain old thinking about the meaning of the information, the value of the information, the impact of the information. We really don’t do much reflecting these days, mostly because there is not much time to sit and delve more deeply into whatever needs an information fix. The Encyclopedia Britannica and all those lonely books in our libraries were made for a different time and a different mindset when people had an interest in the whole story, not just bits and pieces. In bit of good news for Britannica fans, the encyclopedia is now online at Britannica.com ready to answer quickly all those questions that in the past required pulling a heavy volume off the shelf.
For now though, I have replaced the empty space where the Encyclopedia Britannica once resided and began filling it with recently read books, fiction and non-fiction, contemporary and historical. I can say proudly that the space is starting to get a bit crowded. Perhaps my reading habits are the result of more time on my hands, but I would like to think that it is also the need to put myself into a book and reflect on the plot, the characters, and the setting. Maybe the Encyclopedia Britannica did have an impact on me.