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R.I.P., Encyclopedia Britannica

The Encyclopedia Britannica may have been eclipsed by Wikipedia, but nothing can replace the wonder of chance discoveries among weighty volumes filled with dispassionate authority.

May 20, 2012|By Peter Garrison
  • la-oe-0520-garrison-encyclopedia-britannica//An illustration by Jose J. Santos for the Opinion section on May 20, 2012. The illustration accompanies a story lamenting the demise of the once-ubiquitous Encyclopedia Britannica due to the rise of Wikipedia. Jose J. Santos/Los Angeles Times
la-oe-0520-garrison-encyclopedia-britannica//An illustration by… (Jose J. Santos )

These days, the sound of the digital scythe being whetted makes me cast more lingering looks at the paper and cardboard relics on my bookshelves. At none more, since the announcement in March of their imminent extinction, than the familiar brown and gold, oddly titled volumes of my 1958 Encyclopedia Britannica: HYDROZ to JEREM, MARYB to MUSHE, SARS to SORC.

During my teenage years, when my thirst and respect for knowledge were at an unsustainable peak, I resolved to read the Britannica from one end to the other. Or if not read, at least page through; even a young person much deluded about his own capacities cannot have imagined that he would absorb every single word about Bézique, Litomerice or even Trappists. But my goal was to have at least glanced into every department of human knowledge, like the

tourist who passes by, and can therefore truly say that he has seen, every single painting in the Louvre.

The project was doomed from the start. Not only did topics linked by nothing more than the random accident of an initial letter fail to reliably arouse my interest; I also could not resist being led away from the alphabetical order of things by any briefly seductive scent. That was always a problem with any consultation of the Britannica; you would open it to look up one thing and be waylaid by something else, until you forgot what you wanted to find in the first place.

But the encyclopedia was always there, and as the erudite relatives who first taught me that knowledge was a pleasure in itself died one by one (and in whose final shudders I would see vanish, in an instant, vast internal encyclopedias), it remained steadfast, unchanging, dateless and true. Whatever I needed to know I could find there, expounded in that oddly toneless prose in which the slightest whiff of opinion or irony struck like a cold draft from some rudely opened door.

We all had them, my striving generation; the noble tomes were reliably to be found in the cargo of college-bound freights. Collisions were inevitable; young couples setting up housekeeping together would confront the awkward problem of what to do with their twin hereditary Britannicas.

These days I consult Wikipedia — disreputable among scholars, I know — far more often. It's quicker and, when that matters, more up to date. I know how much skepticism to bring to it, and I even edit entries myself from time to time. The old serendipities of encyclopedia consultation are largely — though, thanks to hypertext links, not entirely — missing from Wikipedia, but something else is missing too. What to call it? Maybe just Mass.

Granted, the size of the Britannica — my 1958 edition takes up 4 feet of shelf space and about equals my high school self in weight — was a great detriment to portability. But its sheer bulk and heft seemed to imply, metaphorically, that Truth — massive, permanent, immutable, as I thought at the time — dwelt therein. The Britannica stood apart, remote and lofty, sacred and untouchable. Its impersonal prose seemed to underscore its authority, as if all those articles had been written by something other than mere humans. The thought that I myself might emend a single word of it never entered my mind: It was not just a practical impossibility, but a moral one.

Authorities have not always been our best friends, and perhaps Wikipedia's postmodern assumption that Truth is not what one gray eminence thinks, but rather what we can all agree upon, will put future knowledge-seekers into a healthier relationship with their sources. But I still glance with nostalgia at those now seldom-visited books, and I feel a little pang of loss for the permanent and reliable world they stood for.

Peter Garrison is a writer in Los Angeles.

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