John Hughes

Why I'm keeping my Encyclopedia Britannica -- all 24 nondigital volumes

‘But I need them!’ I exclaimed. Gently, my wife asked, ‘When did you last use them?’

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My wife came into my study with a suggestion bordering on heresy.

“Why,” she asked, “don’t you get rid of your encyclopedia?”

She is of the view that my study should be tidy, unmoved by my protestations that it is a place of work.

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It is true that although my study probably has about 200 feet of shelves for books, they are fully occupied. Excess books are piled upon books, and cascade out of the shelves into piles.

It is also true that I have books cached in other rooms of the house, as well as on about 150 feet of shelving in my campus office at the university where I teach. Books, in my view, are clearly not meant to be discarded.

Part of the family

About four feet of my study shelves are occupied by 24 leather-bound volumes of my Encyclopaedia Britannica. They have traveled from Asia to Boston and Maine, and across the American continent with the various moves I have made. They are sort of part of the family.

My practical wife explained that if I abandoned them I could move a pile of other, unshelved books, into their space, tidying things up somewhat.

Aghast at the very thought, I exclaimed: “But I need them!”

Gently, she asked: “When did you last use them?” I had to reply that it had been some time, perhaps even years. With a cunning thrust, she reminded me that we actually have a complete encyclopedia, given to us by a friend, on our computers.

Then, moving in for the denouement, she trumped her argument with a reminder that I routinely use all kinds of search engines to extract all kinds of needed information on my keyboard without turning a leaf of the printed encyclopedia.

In good company

But my Encyclopaedia Britannica has long kept neighborly company with my shelf of Reagan books and my shelf of Churchill books. I have a shelf of Bill Safire books and Bob Woodward books, and a shelf of books by Joe Harsch and Elizabeth Pond and David Willis and other Monitor colleagues, past
and present.

I have a religion shelf, and a shelf of books by Dylan Thomas and others about Wales, the land of my birth. I have shelves on China and Indonesia and Africa, and of course current affairs (Kissinger, Zakaria, Friedman, etc.), and books by former bosses (Erwin Canham, George Shultz, Boutros Boutros-Ghali).

I have a long shelf of books given to me about dogs – “Toward the PhD for Dogs,” and “Gun Dogs and Their Training,” although I’ve never actually shot anything.

From the days when I took the US Coast Guard exam and had a boat, I have kept “Chapman’s “Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling,” even though I have no current plans to pilot any small boat out to sea.

I also have kept: “How to Build Outdoor Structures,” and I almost certainly will not be building any outdoor structures. But you keep all this stuff, because you never know….

The future of printed books?

I did do a little research on who might use my 24 volume printed encyclopedia.

The local charity store refuses to accept them any more.

A local library held its annual sale and couldn’t sell full sets of encyclopedias for a dollar apiece.

There is such an amazing accumulation of information available on the Web that there is no market for even free encyclopedias in print.

Does this mean that books printed on paper are destined to go the way of some printed daily newspapers?

According to reports, electronic books now make up 7 percent of all book sales and bring in a billion dollars. That must mean that a lot of people are still buying a lot of books printed on paper.

For myself, I’m hedging my bets. My wife bought me a Kindle, and it’s great for reading on planes. But my 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica are still on my shelves in all their leather-bound glory.

I look at them, if not in them, fondly almost every day.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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