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Saturday, February 05, 2011

Saving the Britannica, just in case

By Dick Hirsch

This concerns the recurring debate regarding retain vs. discard, but in this case it deals with what could be described as intellectual property rather than the typical old photos, jackets with wide lapels, unworn shirts or shoes that haven’t been stylish in years.

This material comes in 24 volumes bound in leather-like maroon material, stamped in gold. It fills one and a half book shelves. I am describing the Encyclopedia Britannica, once seen as the repository of any fact worth knowing. It does not currently occupy a prime position at our house, but it still takes up shelf space that could be used for other books, artifacts or selected tchotchkes. It is the 1965 edition and although there is much missing because of the countless developments over the past 46 years, it still contributes an element of class to shelves in the guest room.

My wife, Lynn, feels we should discard the Britannica. “How many times did you use it last year?” she asked the other day. “Once or twice,“ I said. Alas, my arguments for retention are weak, yet I have a certain loyalty to the Britannica even though it is dated. I probably could not even find a library or other agency willing to accept an outdated reference work that measures 44 inches across when shelved shoulder to shoulder and weighs over 80 pounds.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, humanity is divided about equally between those who save and those who throw out. Experience has shown that they tend to intermarry, leading to discussions over a multitude of marginal possessions. That is the type of debate in which we have been currently engaged.

It was a big investment in its day and the sales people who made the sales calls in the home of each prospect were very convincing. A sale meant spreading knowledge but it also meant a nice commission for the seller. I didn’t buy our set under the typical circumstance. I had done some promotional writing for Britannica’s regional division and the boss offered a set at what he called an “insider’s” price in partial payment for my work. As I recall, I would have preferred just money, but settled for the books and a check. On reflection, I approve of that decision because it was a valuable resource, always handy to help answer questions, provide odd facts and settle arguments.

But what must I do now? Am I willing to surrender and consign the books to a yard sale where they could be acquired by some philistine who considers them to be appropriate merely as a decorative addition to an empty book shelf?

As I considered my plight, I removed several of the books from the shelf and examined them to assess their physical status. In maturity they are still amazing, not only for their contents and heft, but for other significant characteristics. Even the spines of the books make interesting reading. For example: Vol. 8, Edward to Extract; Vol. 23, Vase to Zygote. I chose to report on those two volumes because they appear to be absolutely new and untouched. Apparently no one in our house ever had any questions that could be answered within those covers. Vol. 24, the Index, was in the same pristine condition.

Quite the opposite is true of volumes 15 and 21, which show slight signs of wear on the binding. Vol. 15 deals with Maximinus to Naples, and Vol. 21 with Sordello to Textbooks. I checked the definitions of both those terms and found that Sordello was a 13th century Italian troubadour, a favorite of Dante, and that in Rome “Homer’s poems were the first school textbooks.” Virgil, Horace and the works of other great writers were added later, the Britannica explained, as “Education was pre-eminently concerned with the study of excellent models.”

Those are the kind of interesting factoids that can be uncovered with some random browsing. I also opened to the very first word of Vol. 1 as well as the very last listing of Vol. 23. They were Aabenraa-Sonderborg and Zyrenian. After ascertaining their meaning in the Britannica, I searched for them on Google. I found them both, with explanations comparable to the encyclopedia; some of the data was attributed to the Britannica
As for the matter of retain vs. discard, my research has been concluded. Loyalty and past performance must be a consideration, as well as emotion. Therefore, if I only refer to the Britannica once or twice a year, that’s enough for me. They may be collecting dust, but its learned dust.



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