St. Augustine of Hippo, surrounded by his books. This painting, by Botticelli, ca. 1480, reflects his more religious side.

Recently a great era officially came to an end in the world of great books and publishing: After 230 years, the Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it was discontinuing its bound print version
An online version will still exist, but I wonder how many people are going to pay a fee for such a service when they can essentially get the same thing for free at Wikipedia.

Now, I have to admit I love Wikipedia, and think it is one of the great intellectual resources that the internet has produced. At this point, there is very little that you cannot find on there, from the weighty to the trivial. With sites such as Wikipedia developing over the past five years or so, it was only a matter of time before the older great works of learning such as the Encyclopedia Britannica were doomed. Even I would rather go to Wikepedia than use an encyclopedia. Wikipedia is easier, is constantly updated, and links you to a seemingly infinite number of related topics for whatever you are researching. I can literally spend hours and hours doing nothing but reading different articles on there.

A handsome publication.

Still, the loss of the Encyclopedia Britannica is something to be mourned. As I said in a previous post, there is something about a book that is wonderful. The British were particularly good at endowing their great publications, such Britannica, with a sort of weighty beauty that commanded respect as well as curiosity. An entire set of this encyclopedia was truly a beautiful thing to behold, the many volumes with their dark, leather binding and neat, crisp print were a monument and testament to the seriousness of learning that British society cherished and encouraged. Cumbersomely making one’s way through different volumes while researching a certain subject, lugging each heavy book off the shelf while they individually piled up on whatever library desk you happened to have claimed, whether at a public library or a university, was one of the great pleasures of a more traditional sort of education. I almost feel sorry for the younger generation of ipad, iphones, laptop users who have never even really experienced the joys of traditional book learning. The practice of laying out books, or in antiquity, scrolls, across some desk while you read or cross reference multiple volumes is as old as the ancient library of Alexandria itself, founded around 300 B.C., and once a home of great poets, writers and scholars. The Encyclopedia Britannica at its inception in 1768 was a renewed part of that ancient tradition.

The great Italian poet Dante immersed in his books, by Luca Signorelli, ca. 1500.

Reading a book, especially an old book, is to participate in a very long human tradition. When you hold an old book, you can image all the people that have touched the same book, different people from different times and places, yet all of them desiring what you desire, a little bit of knowledge. In some library books you can still find the old check out sheet in the back, showing the dates of when the book was physically checked out of a library. You may see it was checked out in 1912…ah, how little did this person know what lay ahead in the twentieth century when they handled the same book you are now handling a hundred years later. To find books checked out even earlier is more delightful, but rare. Occasionally I will still find books in a library that are older than this country itself, books published  for instance, in 1760, and I wonder what the people thought who first touched these books, all those years ago. The fact that such a book has sat on a library shelf for over two hundred years is amazing. It can be a magical experience.

I love old books. Old books have a wonderful scent and texture to them, they were often printed with great care, even artistic aims, with their embossed jackets, gold trimmed edges, different fonts, and old fashioned drawings or photos. In the past, good reading was seen as a complete experience, something that was akin to a spiritual journey. We, in our present age, can still enjoy these ancient traditions. Libraries and used bookstores tend to be filled with older books and there are few things more intoxicating than browsing the stacks of an old and serious library. Find an old edition of Shakespeare, and see with what care it was produced and printed. It is like handling fine wine. Enjoy these places while they are still here.

I love old books...

Of course these things will never really disappear, every library will continue to have encyclopedias in print at least for the remainder of our lifetimes, but we will not see another updated version of this great work, ever again. It is simply too expensive now. So enjoy what you can find in your local libraries, or if you are lucky enough to own your set (at $1,400 for a 32 volume set, the Encyclopedia Britannica were really only for the wealthy) and try, just try, to keep alive some of the ancient pleasures of reading that are too quickly vanishing in our age of technomania. The ancient, sensual pleasures of a book can never be replaced by the cold, electronic contraptions that are slowly killing print books now. Our human eye was designed for the printed page more so than for the electronic screen. I myself will always prefer the traditional book over our Kindle crazed reading fads.

The first printed edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1768.

Of course, the question I have now, is will bookstores and even libraries survive the internet? I really do not know…