It was just an item in the business digest, but it spoke volumes about the evolution of the knowledge business: Encyclopedia Britannica will make its entire contents available for free on the Internet. Somewhere out there in the mists of time, a traveling salesman with worn-out shoes is hunched over his cup of joe in a roadside diner, staring out the rain-streaked window -- or is he crying? -- wondering how it could be that he'd made all those great 45-minute presentations, endured all the dead ends and long nights far from home, only to see these corporate folks just GIVE IT AWAY.
Sales of printed encyclopedias are way down. "It's been pretty dramatic," Britannica.com Inc. spokesman Tom Paneles told me this morning. He wouldn't give numbers, but said the decline began about 10 years ago. Five years ago Britannica put its contents online, but only for paying customers. Three years ago it stopped selling the printed version door-to-door.
I daresay the printed encyclopedia is not yet dead. A set of encyclopedias is not just a mass of data. It's an object, a compendium of knowledge that you can wrap your arms around. It has tremendous "thingatude." The Internet has zero "thingatude." A printed encyclopedia not only contains information but is a symbol of information. You can point to it and say: Look! Knowledge!
Sure, encyclopedias are handy references. But they're also famously unused in many homes, sitting inertly for weeks or months, silently praying that some kid will get a homework assignment on the Diet of Worms. (In my house the volumes of the encyclopedia primarily are used as boosters for small children at the dining room table.)
There's a subtle, and reassuring, message communicated by an aging encyclopedia: Some information is timeless. This message may seem preposterous in today's accelerated society, where candidates like Elizabeth Dole mount campaigns for the presidency that end months before the first primary vote (as I write, I see her on the TV screen, dropping out, and I hear Buchanan is splitting from the GOP on Monday, but all this could potentially change in the hour and 20 minutes leading up to this column's publication. Also, FYI, it is widely believed at the moment that the New York Mets have finally come to the end of their season, but we are still awaiting final confirmation from NASA satellites.)
I like the static nature of the printed reference work. It has a nice pace, sitting there like that. The information seems solid.
The online version of the Britannica, by contrast, will be updated almost instantly if necessary.
"Encyclopedia information does change and does need to be revised, and with the Internet you can do that much more efficiently than before," Paneles said. "In fact, you can revise things daily."
And so doth the world turn from solid to fluid.
(In the full disclosure department, I should note that I learned this morning in preparing the column that Britannica.com has some kind of arrangement to link to the Post's Web site. An annoying detail on deadline. Who makes these deals? When do they happen? I lunge blindly forward.)
Let us peruse the now-musty Volume 9 of the 14th Edition, copyright 1963, Extradition -- Gambrinus. A typical entry begins with a sentence that is almost comically summational. Only after this sentence is completed can the writer turn to the bewildering Latinate specifics that give an encyclopedia its "encyclopedic" flavor.
For example, we see the entry for Fishes.
"Fishes, a name that was generally applied to all those vertebrate animals that live in water, swimming by fins and breathing by gills."
How true! Fish live in water.
Now look at the second sentence:
"Modern authorities are inclined to separate the lampreys and hagfishes, which have no gill arches and no jaws, as a distinct class, the Agnatha or Cyclostomata and relatives, opposed to all other vertebrates, wherein jaws are present and which are grouped together as Gnathostomata."
Sometimes the opening sentences strain a bit, the cords popping out on the neck, as is the case with Eye, Human.
"The eye is the peripheral organ of sight where light initiates a physiological process manifesting itself in the subjective sensation of vision."
Halfway through that explanation you want to tackle it around the knees. Somewhat better, simply for its lubricated prose, is the entry for Fountain Pen:
"Fountain pen, a writing instrument in which a quantity of writing fluid is contained in a reservoir in a holder, the fluid communicating with a writing point or nib through a channel in a fluid control called a feed."
What you want is an introductory sentence that is serenely absolute, that calmly declares that-which-is, without ambivalence. Let's go to Friction.
"Friction is the resistance which is offered to the sliding of one solid body over another."
Lovely, factual, and appropriately sibilant. The specific is then followed by the big-picture situation:
"From earliest times man has made ingenious attempts to diminish it to as small a value as possible."
Less friction is the long-term goal of civilization. Perhaps that's a fundamental problem. A printed encyclopedia has far more friction, sitting there in its lumpy solidity, than the electronic, searchable cyber-version. But sometimes, let us note, friction is good.
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