Well Intended / A post-encyclopedic world
The announcement only came as a surprise because I hadn't thought of it in so long. Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer print the multiple-volume sets that informed the school projects and investigations of our childhoods.
It makes sense. We have become used to immediate access and incessantly updated content. I understand. And I can't sigh too deeply as I've never purchased a set of encyclopedias for my own household. In fact, I have donated most of our paper books over the years as we've become spoiled by the immediate gratification of digital medal. I order books on an impulse and make a living creating online content. But, still, there is something sad about it.
I grew up with a set of encyclopedias. But, I didn't love them as many of my friends did. I was more of a fiction reader as a child and learned early on to get the biggest book I could from the library. I wanted the words to last until our next visit. We kept our encyclopedias in my brother's walk-in closet next to his soccer cleats and Lego bricks. The (perceived) problem was they were dated from a year before I was born. "People hadn't even walked on the moon!" We would protest as we were coached to consult the heavy volumes. "You're writing about capuchin monkeys," Mom might say. "They haven't changed much." And so our elementary school research papers were often thus inspired. But as far as I know, neither of us read them for fun. The books were, however, paramount in the construction of several small bridges and towers. And they year my brother received an RC truck; they made an amazing course of angles and ramps. Sometimes, I pressed violas and the whispery fronds of fern between their pages. Maybe I wasn't as intellectually inquisitive as I could have been.
Many of my most intelligent friends reveal that they spent significant time as children reading through encyclopedia sets. I imagine their parents were proud. Some of them were bought in installments and at significant investment at the time. Or they were given as a gift by encouraging grandparents. Mothers brought them home from the market, a volume at a time as they were offered as a premium if you spent a certain amount on groceries. I marvel at these organized moms. When my son was little, I more than once bought him the same Thomas the Tank Engine. I am sure he had three Percys. How did they not bring home a second J and forget the R?
My father's parents were teachers. Sedentary and cerebral, they were raising an active boy who would earn a football player's letterman jacket, burn down an orange grove, marry a cheerleader and to this day still runs marathons. He tells the story of the year when he was convinced that he would receive a bench and weight set for Christmas. To his delight there was an enormous package wrapped and waiting under the tree. And for weeks he imagined his future impressive musculature. The box was so heavy he couldn't lift it. All these years later, you can see his childhood disappointment when he reveals that was the year he was given 150 pounds of encyclopedia.
Parents want the best for their children. We try to teach them how to navigate the world we have come to know with the full understanding that it's ephemeral. They will face new challenges and break different rules. We attempt to prepare them by teaching them not only what we believe they should know, but also how to learn, consider and create. The parents who have over the years purchased these encyclopedic volumes have done so, I believe, with the intention not only to inform, but also to inspire. Who knows what their children might come to love if they are just exposed? And it must have also reassuring to have all those answers right there in your own household.
As we consider the future of content post-print. I wonder about authority. We've moved from a model of a small group of experts curating information to a much more diplomatic approach where anyone who has an idea is encouraged to contribute. We are entering an age where consulting a set of books feels antiquated, the information therein is almost instantly obsolete. To discern and process information seems a skill we must instill in our children. They will need nimble and creative minds in this world of information when everything you need to know about the natural world can't be contained in 150 pounds.
Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.