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Closing the book on a learning tradition

The announcement this week by the publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica that the 244-year-old reference series is ending its print edition hit many adults like news of a beloved teacher retiring — you're sad for what future generations will miss. Nearly everyone who grew up with those stately volumes undoubtedly felt some twinge of nostalgia. Some remember being preternaturally attracted to the numbered volumes, reading them like an installment novel, from A to Zygmunt Stary (king of Poland). Others steered clear until the night before a school assignment was due and then dived in. A lifesaver.

My parents' leather-bound, gold-lettered volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica sit in my den, more an adornment than a go-to source for settling a disagreement over, say, the capital of Uruguay (Montevideo). But they were once a compendium of hope for an educated and curious 1970s childhood. Thumbing through a single volume was a romp through an alliterative storehouse of history, science, geography and the arts. I was both attracted and repulsed by the glossy illustrations on the spiders of the world, vowing never to visit Central America where so many hairy giants lived. But I couldn't wait to see exotic India and the Taj Mahal (I'm still waiting).

The hefty series was not easy to afford, and many middle-class families paid in monthly installments. Yet having an encyclopedia, "the sum of human knowledge" as it was once advertised, was an essential cultural accoutrement to upward mobility. In the days before Mandarin lessons and Baby Einstein, this is what readied your child for academic competition. Wikipedia may have consigned the book-bound encyclopedia to dust-gathering antiquity, but its printed pages have left an indelible imprint on generations.

Robyn E. Blumner is a Times editorial writer and columnist.

Closing the book on a learning tradition 03/16/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 19, 2012 1:11pm]
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