My daughter and wife browse through the children's section of our library as I drift across the atrium to a small room set aside as the "bookstore". This is where excess titles, out-of-date reference material, and unneeded donations are sold to patrons at greatly reduced cost. A little box rides on a shelf trolley just outside the door
with a note that tells me to "Pay Here". The room is small, and I always try to walk through when we visit. Two freestanding paperback shelves pack the middle of the room and hold ratty, mostly heavily read science fiction and crime drama titles. Fiction fills over half of the shelves that line the walls, with most sections of the Dewey
decimal system represented in what is left. And in a small corner, tucked below waist level just behind the door, a section is titled "Reference".
Squatting down, I notice the familiar black leather cover of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. A small piece of cardboard taped to the bottom shelf reads "12 volumes, Micropaedia, $8.00". Sliding one of the volumes from the shelf, I experience a moment of tactile bliss as I draw my hand over the binding and open it to a random page. The volume is large and heavy and the crisp pages burst with small-type paragraphs and supporting images. As my eyes dart from paragraph to paragraph I know I want this.
My wife comes in and sees me caressing a page.
"It is a 12 volume set, they are all here. Only eight bucks," I offer almost guiltily.
"You just threw out a set of encyclopedias, remember?"
It is true. Years ago, after reviewing The Know-It-All, AJ Jacobs' chronicle of reading a complete edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in one year's time, I fell in love with the idea of having my own set. As a young child my family could not afford a set of encyclopedias, though I remember lusting after a set of World Books my neighbor owned. Even then, I felt a sting of insult that they owned this wonderful set of books and never opened them. Soon after reading Jacobs' book and being reminded of my childhood love of encyclopedias, I found myself discussing them with the proprietor of a used bookstore in Richmond, Virginia. She indicated that she had an old set she wanted to get rid of and would give them to me, and soon after I possessed a mid-20th century copy of the 14th edition. From time to time I would grab a volume on my way to the bathroom or pull one open just before bed. It was an old, heavily used set. Articles detailing ancient history seemed to hold the most value, though reading about countries prior to the end of colonization often amused me. The majority of articles detailing science and technology showed the most signs of age.
Ultimately, after several moves and a variety of alternate uses (including serving as a coffee table), I recently left the set in a "free" bin at a used bookstore. Yet here I am two months later, fondling the supple leather cover of this younger edition under the critical gaze of my wife.
"You're right. I don't need these," I finally admit. Placing the volume back on the shelf, I rejoin my family and we leave for swim lessons.
Driving through the dark, I keep thinking about those 12 volumes. Where are the rest? The 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica attempted a different approach from previous printings. It was divided into a Micropaedia, which supplied shorter one to two paragraph entries on a wide range of topics, and a Macropaedia, featuring longer and more comprehensive articles. The Micropaedia served as a quick reference, and the Macropaedia provided detailed articles written by subject matter experts. Of course, neither this innovation or any other could save the printed version from its doom. As I think about those books, an incomplete set yet still filled with a daunting amount of human knowledge, I begin to grow angry. Eight dollars, I think. Is that really the value given to such an impressive thing?
Two days later we return the library. I soon find myself squatting in front of those same 12 volumes. Someone has scratched through the "$8.00" and replaced it with "$5.00". My blood boils. I slide another volume into my hands as a gentleman walks up and notes "$5.00? You wouldn't believe what I originally paid for my copy!"
Actually, I would. A more recent printing of the 15th edition still costs over $800 on Amazon. When the printing I hold in my hand first released, that number would have been over $1000.
"What are you doing?"
My wife is standing in the door eyeing me suspiciously.
"These have been marked down to five dollars!"
"You still don't need them."
"Five dollars," I repeat, more meekly this time.
"We are getting rid of stuff, not getting more. Besides, isn't that why you pay for the Internet?"
She has me there. Almost anything I might open to in this printed encyclopedia will be less current and less accurate than searching for the same topic on the net. But the Internet cannot satisfy the cravings of a bibliophile. Nevertheless, I reluctantly place the single volume back on the shelf again. "Five dollars," I continue to repeat as we leave the small room. A synopsis of Western civilization (and beyond) compiled into a form that is itself a utilitarian work of art, and I turn my back on it.