Gordon Crovitz’s piece this week in the Wall St. Journal discusses the news that the Encyclopædia Britannica will no longer be available in print, although its (apparently thriving) web-based subscriber service will live on.
(Grammatical Note: While the dangling preposition is generally the one thing up with which A Superfluous Man will not put, here, we follow the lead of the above 1913 advertisement for the Britannica…”the book to ask questions of.”)
The news comes as something of a blow: Never again, for the first time since 1768, will one see a freshly printed Britannica, gold leaf glittering against brown leather, in the reference section of the library. How odd that this quintessentially Enlightenment project provokes such Romantic feelings now that it is gone.
While, as Crovitz’s article points out, anything that was ever contained in the print edition (and more) will continue to be available online, the encyclopædia has never really been about finding information. Indeed, A Superfluous Man vividly recalls having been instructed by his primary school teachers that it was “lazy” to use an encyclopædia as a research tool…one can only imagine the delight a teacher would take if a schoolchild of today were to cite anything beyond Google and Wikipedia.
Browsing the encyclopædia–the real purpose of the Britannica–or even reading it alphabetically is less serendipitously enjoyable when performed on a screen. Like reading the dictionary, this bookish rite of passage appears well on its way to the dustbin of history.