Bye-Bye, Britannica

image: Encyclopedia Britannica website


Say it ain’t so!

Encyclopedia Britannica says no more printed books.

Sound familiar?

The gold stamp begs me to buy this final 32-volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I’m tempted—this illustrious tome has been published annually since 1768. But $1519.95 (including $125 for shipping costs) seems a steep price for a cheap visit down Old Times Lane.

Unbidden, memory roars in and jolts me back in time.

It is a dozen years ago and  I am standing with Mother in my childhood home. In a week, she moves into a new, smaller house.

We walk into the wood-paneled den. Against the far wall sits a dust-covered cherrywood bookcase. Its rounded corners bear the familiar scratches of time and a life spent among young children. Inside its two shelves rests a complete set of the 1964 Encyclopedia Britannica, each massive volume swaddled in maroon leather, edged with gold bands. A World Atlas, more massive than the others, peeks out from a custom vertical slot on the bookcase’s back side.

The sight spins me further back in time, to the many hours I spent with what became dear friends of mine. Researching school assignments. Looking up long away places and long ago notables. Sometimes reading page after page of a single volume for the pure joy of learning something new, something alien from the world of my small Texas Panhandle birthplace.

Sometimes the encyclopedia entry required permanent notation, via longhand and using only a pencil, of course. Call it notetaking du jour. Yellow highlighters and Post-It Notes remained someone else’s sci-fi dream. Ergo, engineers and easy-to-use pencil sharpeners.

I would select a specific encyclopedia then nose around until I found a thick stack of notebook paper. With both items carefully placed on the kitchen table in front of me, I would write for hours, noting every factoid available for inclusion in term papers or book reports.

Sometimes I wrote down newly-acquired bits of knowledge because I could, because something was interesting and maybe I could use it some day.

Channeling a future writer? Preparing for a novelist’s career?  

I remember all the cautions. These encyclopedias were expensive five decades ago, too.

Big Brother would say, “Careful, those books are heavy, heavier than me.”

Daddy struggled with one volume—the atlas. “Where do you want it, Missy?” his blue eyes would bear into mine, “I’m only lifting this thing one time tonight.”

Mother, our family’s first bibliophile, worried about the paper. “They’re onion skin, those pages,” she said, “Touch with one finger—gentle, gentle and only one page at  a time—no, don’t lick your fingers or the paper will tear even worse.”

Walking across the den to the bookcase, I bend down to scan the encyclopedias. One hand lurches forward as if on invisible automatic pilot and grabs a volume. It’s as if the fingertips of my childhood have returned to action. Their forgotten, practiced touch moves with loving kindness, gently lifting page after thin page.

My ears, nose,and eyes smile at the sensory overload: old paper rustling through arthritic fingers;  stale ink stinking back to useful life; dense paragraphs of lengthy text blinding trifocal orbs. Each reminds me that I, too, have become an anachronism.

Mother watches me, smiling.

She kept the bookcase. Without the encyclopedias.

I miss them—their life and feeling and energy. Like I miss all printed books, including those that, in this age we live in, will never be birthed in that put-your-fingers-on-it form.

I don’t care what anyone says, believes or writes: digital books come from 1’s and 0’s, and thus can never, ever, touch the same space as those issued in print for each us to hold in hand.



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