Maswood Alam Khan
Thousands of serious readers around the world, I am confident, were on the verge of tears when they had heard or read in the second week of March about a heartbreaking news report that “after 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print.” It was so painful to learn about the sad demise of the encyclopedia in its printed format! The news literally wrenched at my heart.
I could not reconcile myself to the prospect of missing the next “Book of the Year” that I used to buy every year to supplement my most beloved treasure of the original 29-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica with its yearly updated volumes — those coolly authoritative, gold-lettered reference books that have so long bejeweled the shelves of my personal library.
Many a day I would spend many an hour with the volumes as my warm companions in my quest of knowledge. At times, I also used to feel a little tired of bearing those heavy tomes on my lap. The feel of weight, however, was so endearing! Of late, of course, I hardly consult those weighty volumes as it is much easier to google or to consult Wikipedia for gleaning any reference in the split of a second in the Internet. Still, whenever I pass by my bookshelf at my study room I radiate with a sense of pride, looking at the gleaming set of the encyclopedia that has been a proud fixture in my home for many years. In fact, I have borrowed the sense of pride in Britannica from my father who so lovingly used to nurture his own collection of a 5-volume Encyclopaedia Britannica, a very old edition he had bought from a secondhand bookstore during his student life in Calcutta Presidency College.
Britannica Encyclopaedia perhaps found it tough to survive as a profit-earning company through the slow sale of its traditional print editions at a time of this 21st century when one can consult in the Internet a plethora of open sources like Wikipedia absolutely for free. In the face of tough competition from free-sourced online encyclopedias and in a painful acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age, Britannica Encyclopaedia has been compelled to stop publishing their print edition. However, the company executives said that they would now focus primarily on their online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version of Britannica Encyclopaedia is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.
Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., said in an interview: “It’s a rite of passage in this new era. Some people will feel sad and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Website of Encyclopaedia Britannica is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.” Still, Encyclopaedia Britannica pressed in print will terribly be missed.
Reading an encyclopedia in a website and reading the same on printed pages in a leather-bound book are two diametrically opposite experiences: one is an unripe apple and the other a sweet orange.
Whenever you read something interesting, a text or an image, in a website, you enjoy the contents the way you enjoy the fleeting glimpses of a panorama while sitting inside a moving vehicle, looking out its windowpanes. The glimpses don’t really register permanently in your memory. The same text and the same image printed in a book feel like your solid possessions in your hands for you to read, feel and relish with or without a pause. And the imagery of your knowledge so gathered from a printed book get intensely etched on your memory with a different feeling that cannot really be compared with what you experience on the monitor of a computer or on the LCD screen of an e-reader, like a Kindle or a Nook. With a print book there are contemplative moments for you to distill ideas while comfortably flipping the pages back and forth. But, turning back to a previous page in a website is nonsense. It is like the difference between listening to music from a vinyl disc rotating visibly inside a turntable at the touch of its stylish stylus, something so real and perceptible and listening to the same from a CD or a downloaded MP3, something so phony and intangible. A CD or an MP3 may produce a crispy sound, but doesn’t have the aura a vinyl disc creates and the regality it displays.
However, we cannot reverse the arrow of time. The print encyclopedias being faded into oblivion is an unstoppable trend that will continue. It is, after all, the digital age. Digital substitutes for printed materials have tons of advantages — speed, size, search capacity and many others. In recent years, print books have been almost completely overtaken by e-books. With e-reading becoming the main mode of studying, reading hard copies of books or newspapers may soon become a habit of the yesteryears. The corollary of increased e-readership will deprive us, our children and our grandchildren of the divine pleasure of reading the real hard books. The fast speed of online resources is dwarfing the past spread of printed resources. Since it was commissioned 11 years ago, Wikipedia, written and edited by tens of thousands of contributors around the world, has moved a long way forward to become a gigantic repository of knowledge at an unimaginable acceleration. Already with nearly four million articles in English, Wikipedia has by now been accepted as a largely accurate and comprehensive source, even by many scholars and academics.
But, Britannica in print, the oldest continuously published encyclopedia in the English language, is special. It is also a luxury item with a $1,400 price tag. Britannica online is also not free for a learner to access into. You have to pay a $70 annual fee for its online subscription, which includes access to their full database of articles, videos, original documents and mobile applications.
You may of course find for free everything and anything in the website of Wikipedia — ranging from every story of every great or simple person or event to love life of every big or petty celebrity to biography of every Tom, Dick or Harry in every corner of our planet. But, Britannica does not allow its precious space to be crowded with mundane entries that do not stimulate the scholastic minds.
Compared to their ancestors, Baby Boomers who were born in the 1950s and older folks who were born in the first or second quarter of the last century are quite hearty and healthy thanks to modern medicines they take, modern exercising machines and tools they use and scientifically prescribed dietary regimes they follow. But, not always they are happy with science. Most often they are squeamish about some matters which most of the modernists take completely for granted. They are at times confused by some of the odd advancements of science and by some of the unheard-of fashions of living. They, of course, marvel at the magic of science. They love to see people enjoy the fruits of modernity and often amuse themselves with some modern gismos. Some of them even tinker with digital wonders like a cell phone. But, they miserably fail to grasp the nettle of keeping pace with the superfast and dramatic changes in habits and culture. And, they revolt if they are asked to shift their attitude from what they have been used to for ages.
Baby Boomers like me and the older folks like my father will continue loving print books as they are used to having pages they can actually turn, not click or swipe. They will continue adoring the literal weight of each volume of the encyclopedia that has been resting in their bookshelves. They won’t read e-books whatever the advantages they offer. A mellowed man whose vision has been impaired may find it exciting to read on the screen of a computer the neat texts that can so automatically be magnified. But, the chances are he would still spend hours with those gold-embossed Britannica volumes on his lap, flipping through the tissue-thin pages and squinting at the 9-point tiny fonts. If the fonts seem too small for his weak vision, he would rather use a magnifying glass. He will vehemently protest if someone suggests him to read an e-book on an iPhone or a newspaper on a Kindle. He’ll always sniff around for the familiar smell of leatherette covers and the known crinkling sounds of pages of a printed book, a book that he can curl up with while reading in a library or at a solitary den, on a chilly night — with a magnifying glass and a cup of tea, quiescent on a side table.