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Posted at 08:16 PM ET, 03/14/2012

Encyclopedic Knowledge — Britannica stops the presses

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. But that was it for the past decade.

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, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is closing its covers. The most recent print edition, 32 volumes from 2010, will be the last. And 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. Raynal to Sarraut. Sarsaparilla to Sorcery. Napoleon to Ozonolysis. Mushroom to Ozonides.

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. After you get it, it sits in your garage or on your shelves and shames you with your lack of knowledge about Raymond of Tripoli.

Encyclopedias were an exercise in patience. You paid for them in installments. You waited for the heavy books to arrive. When you needed to look something up, you painstakingly located the correct page in the correct volume, read it, and returned the book 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 the Encyclopaedia Britannica was the section on James Otis. I only imperfectly remember it. But I recall its saying that Otis, in later life, “went harmlessly insane and emerged periodically to try law cases.”

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 on the side.

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

It makes, as usual, perfect sense. The company’s president told the New York Times: “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.”

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

But the damage had been done.

The Encyclopaedia is falling the same way so many things fall, in the online age. The demand for them has never been greater. Music. News. Knowledge.

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

On the one hand, we have never been thirstier for instant facts. 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 the instant ink 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 a Wikipedia for that. Save that space for things that really matter, like — directions — well, actually, your phone does those. Or — 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 only had the nagging suspicion that everything you could possibly think had already been thought, centuries ago. Now, with Google suggesting things before we think them and Wikipedia supplying answers to our every question, we don’t have to suspect. We know.

So much for that. 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.

By  |  08:16 PM ET, 03/14/2012

 
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