June 19, 2018
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Encyclopaedia Britannica stops the presses

By Alexandra Petri, The Washington Post

I think I’ve forgotten what it was like to wonder.

Once, I dropped my smartphone in a puddle and had to spend a whole day not knowing how to spell the name of Isaac Newton’s roommate. Otherwise, I have information at my fingertips. Lyrics? Lives? Letters? All there before I can say “Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print.”

Which reminds me: After 244 years, Encyclopaedia Britannica is closing its covers. The most recent print edition, 32 volumes from 2010, will be the last.

Of the 8,000 sets printed, 4,000 are still sitting in storage waiting to be sold.

So much for A to Annoy. Ovid to Plastering. Plants to Raymond of Tripoli. Sarsaparilla to Sorcery.

The volumes were tantalizing; the words and phrases that bookended them, baffling. The encyclopedia delimited, neatly, What We Ought to Know, written by people who ought to know it.

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. A full set is expensive and hard to transport. It sits in your home and shames you with your lack of knowledge about Raymond of Tripoli.

Encyclopedias were an exercise in patience. You paid for them in installments and waited for the heavy books to arrive. When you needed to look something up, you painstakingly located the correct page, read it and returned the volume to the shelf.

Between the Wondering and the Finding Out was a gap, where memory settled.

To mangle a quote from Balzac, the duration of my recollection of facts has always been proportional to the amount of resistance I encountered in discovering them.

My favorite memory of Encyclopaedia Britannica is the section on James Otis. It says, “Already prone to fits of insanity, Otis was struck on the head during an altercation with a crown officer in 1769 and was rendered harmlessly insane, with only occasional lucid intervals, until his death. He died in 1783 after being struck by lightning.”

These things stick with you.

I have often depended on the knowledge of strangers. Crowds are generally right. But they lack a certain flair. They couldn’t have said that about James Otis, or the perpetual bugbear of “Needs Citation” would soon have reared up.

But weigh flair against immediacy, and immediacy wins every time. Pretty soon, to say someone has encyclopedic knowledge will mean “he is generally ill-informed but can check Wikipedia if you give him a second.”

The writing was on the wall when someone conducted a survey and found that Wikipedia had four errors per entry and Encyclopaedia Britannica three. “This study is clearly inaccurate!” the Encyclopaedia bellowed. “It cites Wikipedia!”

But the damage had been done.

Our demand for music, news and knowledge has never been greater. We want them all, and we want them now. We’re just not willing to pay for them.

The desire to pay for a physical copy or a copy at all — shrinking, daily.

On the one hand, we live in a time where there is no wondering. You can know, instantly, the answer to any question of fact. It’s a remarkable gift.

But as a consequence of this ease of discovery, we carry fewer facts with us. Why buy an encyclopedia? It’s out of date before ink even hits paper. And costly! Let’s get another telescreen for the fourth wall and some bonus soma, as long as we’re mixing our dystopic metaphors.

We all know less. Or do we? “It is not that we know less,” we try to argue. “It is that we waste mental storage space on fewer things.” Get rid of the capital of Eritrea and phylum of the chimpanzee. There’s Wikipedia for that. Save that space for things that really matter, like directions — well, actually, your phone does those. Or, say, song lyrics. No, those are online as well. Or — memories.

I don’t have any (too busy squinting into my phone for directions and facts), but maybe you do!

There’s a curious void, and we’ve filled it with Thoughts About Ourselves. No wonder we spend more time on Facebook than Google. Why learn about anything else? Why stare beyond? Someone in the 16th century already did, and, wouldn’t you know, Wikipedia’s all over it.

Once, people had the nagging suspicion that everything you could possibly think had already been thought. Now, with Google suggesting things before we think them and Wikipedia supplying answers to our every question, we don’t have to suspect.

So long, Britannica. From ubiquity to obsolescence, a mere More Accurate Subscription Encyclopedia Service for schools and libraries, in a few years. What a chapter. It speaks volumes.

I miss the heft of the books. I miss the cracking noise of the spine.

Most of all, I miss the wondering.

Alexandra Petri is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial staff.

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