Last week NPR reported on the decision by the publishers of Encyclopedia Britannica to shift from print-and-digital to an all-digital format. According to the report, this will be the first time in 244 years that the Encyclopedia will not be available in print form.
The NPR story quotes from a New York Times article, which clearly delineates the Encyclopedia Britannica as one of America's iconic books:
In the 1950s and 1960s, a set of encyclopedias on the bookshelf was akin to a station wagon in the garage or a black-and-white Zenith in the den, an object coveted not only for its usefulness but as a goalpost for an aspirational middle class. The books were often a financial stretch, with many families paying for their encyclopedias in monthly installments.
Indeed, I remember how fiercely proud my late mother was of our set of the Britannica. For her, it was a mark of our intellectual credibility. We may have been poor, but we were educated--and owning a set of the Britannica (and not just relying on the local library) was a tangible marker of that status.
My mother passed away in 2009, and being her only child, the task fell to me to sift through her possessions. I made the decision to part with the set of Encyclopedia Britannica, now more than thirty years out of date. There have been many days, however, when I have second-guessed that decision. Should I have kept them? Not for what they contained, but for what they meant, to my mother, and to me, all those years.
To me, there is no better criteria for the iconic status of a book (or set of books) than this: that you would be willing to make space in your life for them for no other reason than their sentimental value; not even for what they meant to me, but for what they meant to somebody else.
Mark Bauerlein's essay about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education concludes by wondering: "one wonders if the loss of the print volume has an impact that cannot be remedied. Does any Web site at all carry the authority of the book? Does the experience of searching a Web page ever match the action of pulling a hefty Britannica volume off the shelf and reading real pages? Will a revisable, evolving entry ever attain the status of an independent expression, or will it remain just another "informational text"? To believe that the medium doesn't have a message is naïve."
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