For as long as I can remember, if I didn’t know something, I’d look it up. The age of the internet has turned me into a habitual Googler, but as a kid, it was books — most often the dictionary, occasionally the encyclopedia.
And that encyclopedia? It was the Britannica. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when we got it (12, I think, as we had this 1985 version), but it had a prominent place in our little home. Leather bound. Tiny type. And pages upon pages of facts.
Owning it was definitely an investment on our family’s part. Economically, we were lower-middle class (socio-economically, fairly solid middle class). We were not an acquisitive household, saving for my dad’s predilection for VCRs. But when it came to my education, my capability to learn, my access to knowledge, we did not spare expenses. We bought a set outright, which cost $1,249 at the time (which, according to this calculator is $2676.77 in today’s dollars).
Now, I’m typically not one to wring my hands at the death of the printed book. Long ago I wrote about the benefits of ebooks, and this was particularly true for reference works. So I surprised myself at being affected by the news that the new editions of The Encyclopædia Britannica will no longer be available in print form. Most books are transient things, read once, placed on a shelf, and largely forgotten. The Britannica, though, was a different thing altogether, and key to the experience was its gravity (both figurative and literal). It was a physical presence in our house. Heck, it probably weighed more than my mom.
There’s something to the tangibility of information that allows you to grasp its scope. Clearly, what we now have access to at our fingertips is far greater, and I will never suggest “things were better then,” but I do think what we’re missing, and what my children will definitely miss, is a sense of the real scale of knowledge. Our computers and screens have rendered this information as weightless and abstract, and I wonder if this literal lack of gravity will lead to a sense of a figurative lack of (informational) gravity.