Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I'll look it up in the encyclopedia

I realise that there is an awful lot of things that Peter, age 8, may never really grow up with that his dad, 40, took for granted. The notice today that the Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer produce a print edition was another one of those little milestones on the road to the future.

I remember spending an awful lot of time idly paging through my parents' old encyclopedias growing up -- a rather ancient World Book set that was so old I think Harry Truman was still listed as US President, another "newer" set that probably was out of date around 1970.

Flipping through the dusty volumes was a good occasional pastime for a bookworm kid, if I wanted to know about mining bauxite or Greek history or what classification of animal a tapir was, it was the place to go. I was never quite as obsessive as A.J. Jacobs who read every word of the Britannica in his very funny book "The Know-It-All" but it was a place to gather the bits and bobs of the world, which seemed a lot more mysterious then than now. I loved any slightly offbeat reference books, like the wonderfully esoteric "Book Of Lists" series that I read to pieces, or the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, 1982 edition, that I absorbed like a sponge.

When so much information is available so instantly today it's kind of hard to imagine those pre-Wiki days, when you had to hunt to find out things you didn't know. I don't really miss those days too much, practically speaking -- it's fabulous to be able to learn the details of the T. Rex discography from no less than a dozen or so authoritative sources online instantly, just to use one recent example. And as a journalist, the Internet is a reporter's best friend. But there is something sepia-toned and nostalgic about the way so many things we once thought were essential - a set of encyclopedias, a fancy stereo system, a rotary phone - are going away. Bookstores close and I will miss them. I'll miss the encyclopedia, in its clunky analogue way, even if I haven't actually looked at one in probably 20 years.

My childhood in the 1970s will seem as far away to Peter as he comes of age in the 2010s as the Wild West or Civil War. He was only about 4 or so when the phrase "Google it" came into his vocabulary, a true son of the Internet. Dad still has his mountains of books and actual CDs and comic books to reassure himself -- as much as I love my iPad and iPhone and iPods, I am warmed somewhere deep inside by the notion of the physical too, comforted somehow by a full plump bookshelf bristling with titles. It's not the best thing for a guy who works on the internet to admit these days, but I don't quite trust people who haven't any books in their homes.


  1. We had the Americana in our house, and I read it, sometimes randomly, sometimes intentionally, for YEARS. And we had these annuals, which updated the main set.
    I loved them.

  2. I am so with you! I loved finding unexpected tidbits in encylcopedias- whatever came before or after my research subject. They were a journey :)

    Like you, though, I haven't looked at one for over twenty years- since my last grade school report :).

    And what will happen to Encyclopedia Brown now? Kids will have no idea what his name means :)

  3. Wikipedia brown just doesn't have the same ring to it does it?

  4. Denis9:13 AM

    Amen on the books and CD's! When print newspapers finally go it will be the final proof of the electronic Satan having triumphed

  5. "I don't quite trust people who haven't any books in their homes."

    Yes, exactly! I always gain insight into people by the books on their shelves, and if they have none, well, let's just say they go back behind the starting line in my eyes. I haven't quite worked out how I'll adjust that for people with full Kindles or who have Google searching down to a science.