Rule Britannica — Not!

Hard copy edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is not mourned by everybody

If there was any skepticism about the digital information tsunami we’re currently dogpaddling through, surely it was swept away by the terse announcement that recently appeared in newspapers, magazines — and inevitably, on iPads and laptop screens around the world.  I’m referring to the one telling us that after 244 years of publishing, Encyclopedia Britannica would no longer be putting out a print edition.

No more Encyclopedia Britannica? No more of those glossy-paged, gold-embossed, hernia-inducing, faux-leather volumes that have anchored libraries, private and public, since …s ince Oliver Goldsmith scribbled, William Hogarth doodled and Catherine the Great diddled?

Well, pardon the hysteria. This is a death notice that was not exactly unexpected. Truth is, Britannica’s been on the endangered list since at least 1990 when the company declared bankruptcy, only to be temporarily rescued by a Swiss businessman.

Even before that, Encyclopedia Britannica was coasting on the fumes of an inflated reputation.

The information its volumes contained was often outdated before they were printed. The latest (and last) print edition, published in 2010, was 25 years in the making.

But it wasn’t just the information lag that doomed the print version of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Consider: if you were one of the 8,000 customers who purchased the latest edition, you would have 32 volumes that would take up a wall of your house, weigh 130 pounds and set you back nearly $1,400.

Or, for 70 bucks a year, you could subscribe to the web edition and enjoy instant access in your bedroom, a bus terminal or an Internet café.

But that’s today.

Back in the days when we weren’t in a perpetual rush and portability wasn’t a concern, Encyclopedia Britannica ruled.

Ruled the middle class, anyway.  And it never really was about information; it was about social status.

Families that boasted a set of EB’s in their parlour ascended automatically to the mandarin class. And it didn’t matter whether anyone actually opened a volume.  The books just had to be there, where visitors could see them.  When people purchased Britannicas they weren’t just buying information; they were buying a dream.

I know.  I used to sell that dream.

I was once a door to door encyclopedia salesman. On my first evening, clad in an ill-fitting sports jacket and tie, I tagged along behind a seasoned salesman who would show me the ropes.

By ‘seasoned’ I mean sleazy. This guy was a weasel in a suit. We knocked on every door in a large downtown high-rise. I lugged a satchel full of sales gimmickry.

Weasel did the talking.

Ninety-nine per cent of the doors we knocked on were either unanswered or curtly slammed in our faces. But finally, some poor, kind soul whose mother taught her not to be rude to strangers invited us in.

Big mistake.

The weasel had a polished line of patter that bordered on hypnotic. He dazzled the little old dear like a cobra bewitching a sparrow. Before an hour was gone she had signed up for not only an overpriced set of Britannicas but also for a bookcase, a reading lamp and a subscription for an annual ‘update’ volume.

We were operating inside the law, but just barely.  And morally what we were doing sucked large granite boulders. I was just a kid then, and not nearly brave enough to stand up and shout “Close your chequebook, lady — it’s a scam!”  But I often wish I had. My encyclopedia sales career began and ended that same night.

The experience soured me on what I had considered to be a noble institution.

After all, how noble could Encyclopedia Britannica be if it employed two-bit hustlers like us?

I don’t believe I’ve cracked the spine on a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica since.

But then, neither have lots of people who bought the whole set.



— Arthur Black is an author and humour

columnist. He lives on Salt Spring Island.


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