Jay Evensen: End to Britannica's books won't make us smarter

Published: Thursday, March 15 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Encyclopedia Britannica editions are seen at the New York Public Library on March 14, 2012 in New York City.

Mario Tama, Getty Images

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If you happen to find the 1987 version of the Collier's Encyclopedia Year Book, you would see my name as author of the entry for "Nevada." I worked for a Las Vegas newspaper at the time and was paid a nice sum for the few paragraphs I produced.

The money wasn't as important to me as the authoritative tone of the book. I still consider it one of the coolest bylines I've collected through the years.

That's true even though Collier's went the way of the Funk and Wagnall — once a great comedic catchphrase, as in "You can look that up in your Funk and Wagnall" — in the 1990s.

Now you can look it up on Google, which sounds odd, but not nearly as funny. Search "Nevada" and you will get 539,000 results in an instant. Some contain factual information. Some lead to official government web sites. Some lead to the sites of activists for one cause or another, and some are just plain silly.

Does that make us smarter on the subject? Perhaps, but only if we have the patience to read the way people used to. As I've learned through blogging, tweeting and using Facebook, reading no longer is a linear process. We go a paragraph or so, then click on a link that catches our fancy and find ourselves somewhere else entirely until the next interesting link comes along.

In his insightful essay in the Atlantic four years ago titled, "Is Google making us stupid?" Nicholas Carr put it this way: "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Which doesn't necessarily mean we're getting anywhere faster.

The folks at Encyclopedia Britannica announced in recent days they are ceasing the printed, bound version of their product. The last set, after a string of 244 years, comes in 32 volumes and runs a cool $1,395. Not surprisingly, they have sold only a few.

Like most people my age, I grew up in the shadow of a bookcase filled with what one New York Times blogger this week described as "those coolly authoritative, gold-lettered reference books." On boring summer afternoons, I would lie on the floor and leaf through pages, seeing what I could learn.

Even though the books were painfully outdated even then, it was always an interesting ride. Today I watch as my children research topics for school projects while juggling a host of online chats and games with their friends on separate web windows and I wonder if they are getting the same experience.

Facts are one thing. Immersed reading, pondering and developing mental connections are quite another. Are we becoming the "pancake people" playwright Richard Foreman described — people with knowledge spread wide and thin and available at the fingertips?

Britannica's move was inevitable. The computer age gives us video, audio, up-to-the-minute information and a host of other things our old encyclopedia couldn't provide.

It also makes many people lazy. Traditional reference works like Britannica are available online for a subscription fee. A lot of folks rely on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that may or may not be factual and that easily can be hijacked by people with agendas.

In defiance of the law of entropy, our universe seems to be consolidating and organizing itself. A simple pocket device can serve simultaneously as a phone, clock, television, radio, record player, camera, photo album, typewriter, newspaper, publishing device, calculator, atlas, appointment book and, yes, encyclopedia.

Pretty soon, it will be impossible to think of anything to give someone for a birthday present other than clothes or a new such device for the pocket.

This isn't necessarily bad. It is good that we live in a world where several intelligent points of view are readily available on a subject. That Collier's entry I wrote 25 years ago, after all, provided only my take on the subject.

The question, however, is how many of us bother to seek out and ponder those points of view, and how many just quickly accept one to their liking?

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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