by Sheila Connolly
When I was ten or eleven, my father bought a set of the Great Books of the Western World from a travelling salesman.
My father was not one to fall prey to a glib tongue, but I was too young to question why he thought our household was incomplete without this 54-book set with matching bindings. He'd grown up in a not-affluent Irish family in Syracuse, and though he obtained both a college and a master's degree, maybe he felt his broader education was incomplete.
The set came with its own bookshelf; the bookshelf occupied a space in the hallway for the next few years. I was shorter then than I am now, so I could sit in front of the shelf and read the gold-stamped titles on the spines. I don't recall ever opening one of the books, much less reading it. When my parents' marriage fell apart, I don't know what happened to the books. Maybe my father got custody of them, while my mother kept custody of my sister and me. But I still have the bookcase.
I was reminded of this when Encyclopedia Britannica announced this month that it would cease print publication, although the digital version would go on. The EB: the oldest English-language encyclopedia still in print, now no more. Get your copy now, for there are only a few thousand print sets left. [Note: in doing a bit of research on this, I learned that the Great Books sold poorly in their first decade, until Encyclopedia Britannica took over the marketing strategy and had their experienced door-to-door salesmen handles them. In 1961, they sold 50,000 sets. That was the year my father bought ours.]
Yes, we had a set when I was in grade school. I couldn't tell you which edition it was, but I'm pretty sure it was purchased new for my sister and me to use in school—that must have represented a substantial investment. And we did, or at least I did use them (my sister was a reluctant scholar). In fact, every now and then I'd pull out a volume (they were heavy!) and read something purely for entertainment.
I also remember a handy four-volume set of books whose name is lost to my memory (until I checked Google and found that it was the Illustrated Library of Natural Sciences, four volumes, 1958). The boxed set sat on top of our television in the family room, and I learned multi-tasking early, watching after-school shows while leafing randomly through scientific explanations. I'm sure that was my mother's intention, when she chose where to put the books.
Now I wonder if those books provided me with a sense of order, implying that all important knowledge about anything could be encompassed in a finite set of books. Somebody else had made the decision about what was important, and there sat the results, within easy reach. All I had to do was learn everything in those books and I'd be set for life.
It was a nice fantasy while it lasted. In college I discovered that I was supposed to go beyond memorizing the facts I found on a page and instead question them. That was unsettling. Later in graduate school I realized that I was training to be someone who chose those facts. I was supposed to become one of those Experts on Everything. Really?
I almost feel sorry for young students today, because the available information knows no bounds, thanks to the Internet. At the same time, the ability to assess any piece of information has become increasingly important, at an early age. Sure, research is simple: just Google your topic and you'll find more details that you could possibly need. But scroll past the first page and you realize that the same information is repeated over and over—and how do you know if it's correct? A "bad" fact travels as far and as fast as a "good" one.
But one thing is missing: browsing on the Internet is not the same as picking a book at random and leafing through it—and learning something unexpected along the way. The same is true of buying books, now that bricks-and-mortar bookstores are assailed from all sides by online sites. Sure, you can find the book you want in seconds, but what happens to that lovely serendipity of browsing in a section of shelves and stumbling upon something that intrigues you? Something you would never think to look for?