03/14/2012 05:23 EDT | Updated 05/14/2012 05:12 EDT

The Encyclopaedia Britannica Ends, but it Gave Me my Start


Our family's set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica arrived in 1984, when I was five. Over the years I regarded those tomes with a reverence that was cultivated thanks to my father, who comes from a different generation. He grew up poor in the United Kingdom in the shadow of the Second World War, and those bound volumes were much more than books. They represented wealth and status -- an investment in knowledge. For my father, they were the beginning of mine and my brother's education and held the promise of our success. They meant we would take a career path that led far away from the long hours that my paternal grandmother spent sewing fur pelts together in a basement in order to support her family as a single mother.

And so as I heard the news that Encyclopaedia Britannica was halting its print edition after 244 years, it made me rather nostalgic because I had spent so much time with those books as a child. My father would tell us to look things up when we asked him questions, and I asked a lot of questions. I can remember trying to figure out how the blue set (the micropaedia) and the brown set (the macropaedia) worked. (I usually defaulted to the blue set -- it was much easier to use for an eight year old.) If you were to scan through those volumes, you would find stains from the bits of food and drink I spilled while hunched over the pages. There would also be a few pencil marks, which will horrify my father as he reads this.

I can't deny the logical argument that Encyclopaedia Britannica makes for this shift. The set is expensive to buy ($1395.00 USD) and there are fewer buyers in this digital age. But I'm one of those people who won't purchase an electronic book reader, and who will always pick the physical newspaper to the online version. There is something satisfying and less chaotic about holding a book or newsprint or a magazine and reading by physically turning a page.

Don't get me wrong, I work in the news business and rely on Twitter and wires and breaking updates -- but when it comes to the enjoyment of reading, there is nothing like settling down with a good book in the sun on a lazy afternoon. (And not worrying if you have enough battery power left for a few hours.)

I have to admit that our family stopped paying attention to our Britannica set years ago. We used to receive the updated Book of the Year -- an exciting annual event in which I would rip away a layer of cream-coloured tissue paper and ceremonially place the volume in its prescribed place on the shelf -- but that stopped in 1999. And since the internet made itself irreplaceable while in my teens, I haven't cracked one of those books open until today, to mark this occasion.

I know that the Britannica news doesn't signify the demise of knowledge or learning, or any of the things my father was trying to impart when he made that purchase almost 30 years ago. But it does make me wistful for the days when I lugged one of those giant books from the shelf and hunted for answers in its pages instead of typing a few words into Google. It might not have been easier, but as my father would tell you, nothing that comes easy is worth having. I'm grateful for his purchase and the lessons those books taught, revealed one page at a time to a lucky daughter who never had to learn how to sew.