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Mourning the encyclopedia

March 22, 2012
By Andy Heller , Daily Press

FLINT - I've been a fan of encyclopedias since the day in fourth grade Jon Necci shoved the L volume into my hands and whispered, "Look up Lady Godiva."

I did and it opened my eyes forever. Ah, knowledge.

I bring this up now because for the first time in 244 years Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer publish a print version.

Article Photos

Andy Heller

That shouldn't bother me. I haven't had an encyclopedia in my hands for years. Once you're out of school, they tend to leave your life for good unless you buy a set for home. But I could never afford that nor did I want to sacrifice the space.

Besides, there's the Internet, which contains everything encyclopedias do times a million. Who needs volumes A to Z clogging shelves when the world is at your fingertips 24/7 online?

No one, that's who. And yet I still think we'll be missing something when other manufacturers follow Britannica's lead, as they inevitably will.

There's just something about that row of books sitting there on long shelves like (watch this simile) gleaming teeth in the smile of knowledge.

They're an invitation to come on in, sit a spell - just for the heck of it - and spend five minutes reading about amoebas or the Magna Carta or cumulonimbus clouds.

After Lady Godiva opened my eyes, I used to do that. When we had free reading time in grade school, I'd pluck a random volume from the World Book set our classrooms had and disappear for five minutes, going everywhere and nowhere all at once.

I can't say much of what I read in those moments stuck with me but it did stoke the fires of curiosity. To this day, I'm a knowledge snacker. Anything I spot with words I read - junk mail, restaurant placemats, fortune cookies, you name it.

A great Friday night for me is standing at a magazine rack at the book store, nibbling here, sampling there. Doctor's waiting rooms are nirvana. You may see a three-year-old copy of Popular Mechanics, I see stuff I didn't know before.

As a card carrying 50-year-old (and I mean that literally - I have an AARP card), it's my duty to generate irrational worries about the young, so I worry that kids won't develop the curiosity habit as easily without encyclopedias.

The Internet allows them to look up anything any time, but it also encourages a singular focus. You type what you want into Google, get what you need, then you're gone. A computer screen, while a wonderful portal, isn't a long row of books that beckons from a shelf that's always in view. It's not, oddly enough, a path leading elsewhere.

That's too bad. Without encyclopedias, more kids will miss out on the joy of random, sometimes transformative knowledge. How likely is it, after all, that a kid these days is going to stuff an iPad into his friend's hands in the middle of class and tell him new vistas await?

OK, maybe it is still likely.

But it's certainly not the same.

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EDITOR'S NOTE - Andy Heller, an award-winning columnist for The Flint Journal, appears weekly in the Daily Press. He graduated from Escanaba Area High School in 1979. For more of his work, visit his blog at blog.mlive.com/flintjournal/aheller. You can e-mail him at aheller@flintjournal.com.

 
 

 

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