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.