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.

via @eatingwords


10 comments on “Bibliocide

  1. Suzanne Searby says:

    My deepest condolences. I have a set of the Great Books which my father bought at my instigation and which I was delighted to inherit. I now don’t have room for them either, but the are a symbol and daily reminder of my reverence for what they are and what they represent. Some of these books have actually been read, but sad to say, I usually end up buying a reading copy with copious notes and a good introduction, which the Great Books volumes unfortunately do not have. It is sad that print encyclopedias have gone the way of the dodo and the buggy whip, but the good news is that their absence will not create a vacuum. They have simply been overtaken by other resources. May they rest in peace.

    • Sylvia says:

      I was tempted by the GBWW myself a while back but as you point out, they lack the notes & introduction that make reading these works so much easier. I know Adler & co. were big proponents of making an effort to study a text without outside interference, but I don’t know if that’s really practical for someone who is reading on their own and without the benefit of a liberal arts education. Writers don’t write out of the blue, so why should we read that way?

      Yes, the EB does not leave a hole, and in fact it is still alive online and apparently doing all right, despite competition from you-know-who. There is still something to be said for expertly curated knowledge. As great as Wikipedia is, it is quite uneven, with a huge gender gap and excessive attention given to topics of interest to your typical male geek. I think it was in “The Information” that I read that there is far more material on Wikipedia on things like Star Trek than on the entire continent of Africa. Maybe we can still learn something from our venerable old encyclopedias!

  2. I’m more likely to give up my long-term vegetarianism than burn a book! As a book-loving child of parents who did not read, I read all that I could. I even requested a thesaurus for my tenth birthday, which I realise now to be quite worrying. To me, big books encapsulate so many valuable ideas and opportunities – I think I’ll always appreciate that.

    • Sylvia says:

      LOL! Asking for a thesaurus at 10 is pretty serious! But it’s nice to know book love is not genetic but can strike anyone. 😉

  3. Ryan says:

    There was something tragically beautiful about that video. Burning books isn’t a sin in and of itself. It’s the intent of the burning. The intent here, was noble.

  4. This is sad. Fortunately, we still have the set of Encyclopaedia Britannica that my parents bought for us almost 50 years (although some volumes are missing because some friends never returned the volumes they borrowed). I still remember the pleasure they gave me as a kid. Yes, I’m one of those who enjoy reading encyclopaedias! 🙂

    ~ Matt

    • Sylvia says:

      That’s a shame about the missing volumes but it’s great you’ve kept it all these years. I suppose some of the information is out of date but it can be interesting to look back at where people thought the world was going. Encyclopedia readers unite!

      • Yes, Sylvia, it’s indeed a shame. But, in spite of the missing volumes, I still value it, Not only for the countless hours of enjoyment it provided me when I was still a kid, but also because it’s a reminder of one of the things that I really appreciate about my parents’ (especially my Dad who passed away many years ago) – their love for books and learning. I’d like to think that I’ve inherited that quality, too, and it has serve me in good stead throughout my life…

        ~ Matt

      • Sylvia says:

        I keep my grandmother’s copy of the Norton Anthology of English literature for the same reason. I have a more recent edition as well, but I keep the old one as a reminder of her passion for life-long learning. She was in her late 70’s when she got it for a course in literature. I hope I’m still learning at that age!

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