Loving Encyclopaedia Britannica


For years I've heard people go on and on about how, as electronic books replace physical ones, we'll lose the precious "tactile" dimension of the written word. But I had never really taken the point to heart until I heard last night that Encyclopedia Britannica would cease publication of its physical edition.

It would be overstating the case to say that the news filled me with a desire to caress a volume of Britannica, but I did feel like holding one in my hand. So I walked into my living room and pulled volume 24 off the shelf (which goes from Metaphysics to Norway, in case any of you have questions about subjects between those two endpoints). And I have to say I felt an actual affection for the thing.

Natural selection designed us to relate to physical things in the physical world. So, naturally, one of the senses through which affection can register is touch--along with sight, smell, sound, taste. I guess in that sense electronic books will never inspire the full-bodied affection that physical books can inspire.

But with Encyclopaedia Britannica, it isn't just the physical packaging whose passage I mourn. Whereas books--novels, biographies--will live on for a long time in electronic form, I don't think the traditional encyclopedia will, even if for now Britannica will survive as a website. The whole idea of a top-down, orchestrated, unified compendium of knowledge makes less and less sense in a world where fact and analysis can arise in a bottom-up way and be organized by technological tools for your edification. (I'm not talking just about Wikipedia, which actually has its top-down elements, but about the whole internet.) I can't remember the last time I got out a volume of Britannica for the purpose of actually using it.

And, leaving aside Britannica's archaic logistics, there's something quaintly pre-post-modern about the premise that for every subject there is a true expert who can be counted on to give you the objective truth.

But, even though I don't subscribe to that premise, maybe that's the part of Britannica that I most love. Partly, I guess, because it reminds me of the part of my life when I did subscribe to it, and headed off for college more or less believing it, and Britannica represented a kind of state of complete knowledge that I could progress toward, even if I'd never reach it.

I want to be clear about the parts of the post-modern premise I do and don't accept.

I don't believe that individual people are objective. They bring their biases, conscious and unconscious, to pretty much everything they think about. If you dig into Wikipedia's underpinnings, you can see those biases clashing as people edit and counter-edit each other.

But I do believe there is such a thing as truth, and that argument among all of us half-blind people moves us closer to it. Wikipedia as a whole is way closer to the whole truth than any one contributor to Wikipedia can be. And you'd like to think that Wikipedia, and even the entire internet, will move closer and closer to the truth. Maybe, long after even the electronic edition of Britannica is gone, the idea of Britannica can remain for us what it once was for me--a kind of Platonic ideal that we aspire to evolve toward even if we can never reach it, something that has a kind of reality even if we can never touch it.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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