Another of my icons has left the scene and I will miss it. Like an old gardening sweater seldom worn, it was somehow reassuring just to know it was there. I am referring to the just announced end of the print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica after 250 years.
For all that time it had been the bedrock source of knowledge on thousands of topics. Of course, it had its critics but what human endeavour has not had its detractors? The updated volumes will no longer be found standing with earlier editions but will have to be summoned from the outer reaches of cyberspace.
I grew up in a home with few books and shortly after buying our first home I just had to have the E.B. in its own bookcase bringing a sense of learning and solidity to our family room. I contacted the company and shortly after a salesman called to make an appointment. It must have been exciting for him as most sales were done by knocking on the doors of grumpy householders. I had and still have a lot of empathy for salespeople having spent so many years in sales myself.
Promptly at 7 p.m., a young man my own age appeared at our door. I told him at the very outset that I wanted to buy the set and the only decision to be made was the colour of the cover and therefore our meeting could be brief. I might have been talking to a brick. He launched into an obviously memorized spiel including quoting passages from some Russian authors. I was impressed but again stressed that I was already sold and let’s look at colours.
After a brief pause, he took from his briefcase a brochure showing a very nice bookcase. He offered it to me as an inducement to buy. I nodded and said thanks and could we now look at the book covers.
He ignored me again and brought out yet another colourful brochure advertising the children’’s edition in 10 volumes that would be mine if only I signed.
I was floored and realized that he had been so programmed and nearly brainwashed that he simply could not stop until he had made the whole packaged presentation. I
found it almost surreal. Eventually we agreed on the covers and he left glowing with satisfaction over a great sales presentation. I sat shaking my head in disbelief.
But why mourn the demise of an institution like Encyclopedia Britannica when an even more important tradition is about to be inundated by the digital universe?
I’m referring to the way people read or don’t read, the gadgets that have made the book simply an adjunct to the latest digital craze, to be summoned or deleted in seconds.
An even more grievous loss is that of the independent book store owned by people who really know books and authors.
Looking for a book that will appeal to your favourite aunt in Manchester? Don’t waste your time enquiring at the local mega book market. The eager young clerk probably doesn’t know where Manchester is, let alone have the background knowledge to recommend anything other than what’s printed on the New York Times Best Seller list.
For years, the small, family-owned bookstores have struggled to survive and to lose them to the soulless monoliths taking over the business is a tragedy and a loss we simply can’t afford.
Let’s all support our local literary entrepreneurs and their specialized knowledge.
Consider the two bucks extra we paid as a contribution to our culture.
— Harvey Dorval is a regular News columnist