I'll miss the Encyclopaedia Britannica

Years ago, there was a magazine ad showing a whisky bottle broken on the floor with brown liquid spilled everywhere. The words beneath the photo read: “Did you ever see a grown man cry?”


I’ve never cried over spilt liquor, but I will admit to getting misty-eyed last week when Encyclopaedia Britannica announced it would publish no more books bearing the name of the most revered encyclopedia in the English language.

The reference books, which first saw the light of paper in 1768, will continue only in digital form. That’s something, I suppose, but I have fond memories of pulling a heavy volume of the majestic Britannica from a library shelf and being assured of finding accurate, complete information (try that on the Internet).

I almost owned a new set of Britannicas in college, when, like most of you, I had only one penny to rub together. A salesman came to my apartment door one Satur­day lugging a heavy case and sweating profusely. The poor guy reminded me of an “after” photo of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

I offered him a beer to help him cool down, and it was then that I discovered he had just had a tracheotomy. As he drank, beer sprayed from his neck. After that, if he had been selling the Hope diamond, I would have felt obligated to sign on the dotted line.

That is exactly what I did, even though the Britan­nica cost many hundreds of dollars (you can buy the latest, and last, set for $1,395). As soon as the salesman left, I called the telephone number on the contract and explained that there was no way I could afford encyclopedias, unless they wanted to donate them to a college student’s future. They didn’t, but they let me out of the contract.

A few years later, diploma in hand, I was working at a newspaper in Alabama. The public library held a book sale, and the first thing I noticed was a complete set of the Britannica for only $10.

That I could afford, so I paid and began the first of several trips to the car.

“You realized that set was published in 1947, right?” a librarian asked.

“That’s not a problem,” I replied. “It still has everything that’s happened since creation, and all that’s missing is the past 40 years, so that’s a bargain. But why are you selling it?”

“They don’t have all the right countries in the right places on the maps,” he said. Also, they had been donated, and the library had nowhere to store them.

Sure, my Britannicas have no mention of NASA, The Beatles or Toyota, and their idea of current events is a little thing called World War II.

On the other hand, there is a wealth of knowledge on those yellowed pages that smell more knowledgeable than an iPad. The black-and-white photographs, drawings and eloquent sentences are well worth their total weight.

For the only set of encyclopedias I’ll ever own, I got quite a bargain.