Sign of the times: Farewell, Encyclopaedia Britannica

After 244 years, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. has anounced that it will no longer publish its signature reference volumes.

New York Times:

In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age - and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia - Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

"It's a rite of passage in this new era," Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a company based in Chicago, said in an interview. "Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it's much more expansive and it has multimedia."

In the 1950s, having the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the bookshelf was akin to a station wagon in the garage or a black-and-white Zenith in the den, a possession coveted for its usefulness and as a goalpost for an aspirational middle class. Buying a set was often a financial stretch, and many families had to pay for it in monthly installments.

But in recent years, print reference books have been almost completely overtaken by the Internet and its vast spread of resources, including specialized Web sites and the hugely popular -- and free -- online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

My brothers and sisters and I used to spend hours poring over entries just for the fun of discovering new things. You can still do it -- I find myself getting lost in the EB website, clicking on references. It has always been eminently readable and accurate.

If I may be allowed my curmudgeonly side to emerge for a moment, I mourn the passing of the printed page. A monitor screen is not the same thing as having the printed word in your hand where you don't have to scroll up or down to reread something important. Nor can I ever really get comfortable - even with my laptop - when reading for long periods of time on the internet.

Ah, but sink into a leather recliner, or a good Lazy Boy, prop your feet up, turn on the lamp, and be transported to another place, another time with a good book as your guide. Kindle is nice, but the act of turning a page, the feel of book in your hands, the smell of the paper and glue, and binding all combine to represent the experience of reading.

Can you get that on a Kindle? Maybe some day...

I realize the economics of the publishing industry will eventually mean hard backs, and perhaps even paperbacks, will go the way of the mom and pop grocery store in favor of the e-book. But I pray that a few dinosaurs survive and the printed page will live on for a while yet.