This is a tale of neglect and obsolescence. Julian Baggini didn’t have room for his Encyclopædia Britannica. The thirty-two volumes represented his parents’ hopes and dreams for him, but now that he was all grown up they were no longer of any use—if they ever were. They went into storage until one day he discovered that they had gotten wet and were now covered in mold. The only thing left to do was to dispose of them. He chose to burn them.
It’s a provocative act—I think we all have a negative gut reaction to book-burning—but he sees it more as a cremation. The books died long ago, and perhaps had never truly lived. While carrying out this last duty to these great books, Baggini wonders if they ever served their intended purpose, or if they were simply a marketing trick, preying on the aspirations of working class families who wanted a better future for their children. Did anyone really use them?
My parents couldn’t afford a set of encyclopedias, or rather, they chose to take me to Europe instead. Baggini suggests that parental influence is far more important to later success, and that parents could have done more for their children’s education, without going into debt, by buying plain old good books. I must admit that as a child I lusted after the Encyclopædia Britannica. A few years ago, when I found it drastically marked down on Amazon, I jumped at it. It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream, and the thirty-two volumes sit proudly behind me as I type this. Do I use them? Rarely. But that doesn’t make them worthless in my eyes. I think it’s worth having tangible symbols of the things we believe in, especially now that so much of our lives is virtual. I think the next generation is more comfortable living in the cloud, but I like to be able to hold the things I care about, and you can’t get a more substantial symbol of carefully collected knowledge than the Encyclopædia Britannica.
It is not only Baggini’s set of EBs that have passed on, but Britannica finally stopped producing print editions last year. So let us bow our heads, and mark the end of an era.
You can also see Julian Baggini’s written account here.