You may have heard that the Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer exist as a kind of wall of knowledge on shelves in classrooms and school libraries. No more penciling-in funny cartoon bubbles coming out of the mouths of our country’s forefathers or a painting of Copernicus shouting “You’re not the center of the universe!” No more secret flipping to the pages on the human anatomy that had… well, you know, hot parts. From here on, Encyclopedia Britannica will be digital-only. They’re not even going to bother with souvenir copies in book form.
The move seems simultaneously inevitable and somehow wrong. Logic tells us that digital is now and the future, but in our grief we see old encyclopedias stacked out on the curb awaiting either a snatch by some voracious homeless reader or the scoop of the garbage truck. Still, from here on, is there any argument for having something like the next edition of a set of encyclopedias published and printed? And if that answer is no, is it time to plot our defense of books in general?
Not every single change in the name of modernity has a basis in being good for all, and “progress” is often someone simply looking to make more money. Encyclopedia Britannica will have a leaner and more efficient business model as a result of going digital-only. That’s vastly different from coming out with a new iteration of a globally popular software program to create obsolescence that generates both profit and waste. The encyclopedia business yielding to the presence of computers in schools is not the same as driving sales with a new set of bells and whistles.
Still, should we take the loss of a physical presence for encyclopedia book volumes on library shelves as a call to action to save printed books? What would be our concerns?
Digital-only formats may portend a crisis in credibility, and not just because there are people who would plant lies and worse in someone else’s existing text to create cyber-havoc. Already people have written about whether EB’s new Internet-only existence will add or subtract from the information collective Wikipedia, and vice-versa. They’re hardly the same entity, and yet they’ll now often be treated as such. Both will be a source of reference and information, with the job of double-checking, cross-referencing or looking for contextual slant left up to the user. Encyclopedia Britannica’s reputation may cause less questioning of its content than Wikipedia, but it’s possible that if he were still with us Howard Zinn would take EB to task regarding at least a few accounts of American history.
Which brings us to accepting that, while the printed word – either on paper or a web page – tends to have more default veracity than a spoken word radio broadcast from Rush Limbaugh, I’m afraid we live in a time where we can’t just scan and accept. As recently as a few days ago, it was revealed that widely accepted accounts by performance artist Mike Daisey of his personal witnessing of sweatshop conditions at an Apple supplier in China were fabricated. This column cited some of Daisey’s observations, having taken them as valid because of their embrace by multiple sources.
One view of what Daisey did, which was fabricate personal encounters based on known conditions to gin-up the emotional wallop of his information for possibly noble reasons, suggests that information now must compete in ways that it never had to when it was set down as type in musty old books. While a page in an encyclopedia regarding properties of physics might have information that largely stays put, another page regarding fighting cancer may need to stay fluid to adjust to new breakthroughs. We all know that “news” is only as good as its freshness date. Think of Encyclopedia Britannica entry on candidate Herman Cain. At one point, updating that would have been a 24/7 job.
Consideration of all this comes before simply conceding that reading from printed books provides pleasure. Books as objects have a texture and integrity (they are still without match as a doorway to the imagination) that few manufactured goods can provide. While I joked earlier about school boys marking-up encyclopedias, the truth is that we often treat books better than we do our cars or cell phones or other objects we deign essential. For many, respect for books comes from something deep in our youth that was instilled by a family member or teacher. I acknowledge that I’m wrapping books in a blanket woven of nostalgia and memory that, as a shield against the forces coming at books right now, may not prove to be enough. But really, the pleasure of printed books would disappear?
E-readers, electronic devices for reading digital files of books, are having no trouble finding an audience. Bloomsbury, the publisher of the Harry Potter books, says that digital books now account for 10 per cent of sales. The large bookstore chains that gave us that sense of America widening its book reading habits are now gone or collapsing. With each passing day, more newspapers exist without any of that “paper” part.
To gaze upon a bookstore mountain of half-price tomes authored by Newt Gingrich is to realize that digital media can at least mitigate the waste excreted by blowhards. Others will argue that while it hurts small independent bookstores that may be struggling in your neighborhood, online services like Amazon can get more books to more people. And I should point out that you might be reading this defense of books right here on your computer. Still, my paper newspaper says it’s going to be a rainy weekend. I’ll use the excuse of the weather to get some reading done… one flipped paper page at a time.