The Backstory – An Encyclopedia Geek

I’m a bibliomaniac from way back.  I learned to read at the age of five, immediately abandoning the picture book section at the school library and tackling the “real” books in the rest of the library.  I devoured every book that I got my hands on–novels, history books, math, science, you name it.  By 5th grade, I’d cut huge swaths through our library, reading every book that they had in several sections.

As any lover of libraries will tell you, however, the holy grail of all books at the library is the set of encyclopedias.   I don’t recall which particular set my school owned–Comptons, World Book, Colliers, or some other set.  I do know, though, that the encyclopedia shelf was where I headed when I wanted to know anything about anything.  The set of 30-some volumes was the definite source for all possible knowledge.  And I’m sure that I returned to them time after time as I dug up information for various research papers.

At some point in my early teen years, a traveling encyclopedia salesman made a quick visit to our house.  He left a pile of gorgeous color pamphlets showing us the brand new edition of the World Book, in all its glory.  My parents had a much older set of World Book encyclopedias, now roughly 20 years out of date.  I’d already spent many hours poring over the volumes in that set, until every volume was lovingly worn.

But seeing the brochures for the new World Book, I knew that I had to have it.  I started chipping away at my parents’ resolve, convincing them that we just had to buy this set of encylopedias.  I’m sure that I played the “good grades” card, insisting that without a full set of up to date encyclopedias at home, I just wouldn’t be able to do the high quality schoolwork that we all knew I was capable of.

And I did it.  I convinced my parents to buy the World Book set.  I still remember unboxing the set when it finally arrived, practically caressing each volume as I placed it on the shelf.

I got a lot of use out of that first World Book set.  Of course I used it for numerous school reports or projects over the years.  But I also spent a ton of time just sitting in the living room and reading encyclopedia articles.  On my more ambitious days, I’d grab a notebook or pad of paper and take some notes, or create an outline for some particular research paper that I wanted to write.

I had become an encyclopedia geek.

I’m not exactly sure when I stopped reading and enjoying that first set of encyclopedias.  Probably my use of it faded away once I graduated from high school and headed off to college.  I buried my head in textbooks and no longer had the luxury of spending time just browsing through this big pile of human knowledge.

But I never lost my love of encyclopedias and always dreamed of owning a full set again someday.  But somehow, I never got around to buying a set.  A full set of encyclopedias is a pretty pricey proposition and I never quite managed to budget for it.

Cut to the spring of 2012, when I stumbled onto a short news story announcing that after 244 years, Britannica had just announced that they would no longer print their set of encyclopedias.  This was unthinkable–like hearing that New York was going to secede from the union, or that humans would no longer eat hamburgers.  It turns out that the 2010 printing was Britannica’s last.  Once they sold out, the printed version of Britannica would be gone forever.

Dear God, I had to get a set.

I frantically pointed my browser to Britannica’s web site, to see what a full set cost.  Ouch–something on the order of $1400.  My heart was breaking over Britannica’s demise and I felt I just had to grab a copy.  But the price was still a little too steep.

I figured that I’d think about it for a few months and check back later.  Or maybe I’d just look around on the web and pick up a used set that had still been printed within the last few years.

It turns out that getting a copy of the final 2010 printing of Britannica was a near impossibility.  I checked back about a month later and they were completely sold out.  Worse yet, I couldn’t find any sets online printed within the past 10-15 years or so.  I did find a handful of sets of the 2010 printing, but the sellers were hawking them for something like $8,000.  Britannica had become as rare and priceless as a Bugatti.

At this point, I was in denial.  I knew that I could still buy a copy of World Book, since it was still in print.  But once the idea of buying Britannica got stuck in my head, nothing else would do.  Britannica is simply the best.  But there was just no way I was getting my hands on a set.  Still, I couldn’t help checking the used book sites every few weeks, hoping that by some miracle I’d find a semi-recent set at a reasonable price.

I’d been aimlessly staring at listings on Abebooks, Alibris and Amazon for months when, in November of 2012 I saw something a little strange.  It was a listing for a full set of Britannica, “brand new in the original boxes from the publisher”.  The set was listed for $1,500.

I figured that this had to be a mistake.  Either this set was far from new, it was incomplete, or the price had to be much higher.  So I contacted the seller, asking her which printing this was and was the set really brand new.  Yes, she said, the set was brand new, still in the original boxes.  And it was printed in 2010.

2010?  A brand new Britannica set, the final 2010 printing, for $1500?  Praise be to Mortimer Adler and all the encyclopedia gods!  I nearly wept.  Not only had I found a full Britannica set printed in the last ten years, but it was the final freaking 2010 printing at a price that I could afford.

This was the holy grail of the encyclopedia universe.  I bought it.

It’s several weeks later.  The Britannica set has arrived and it’s 32 volumes of gorgeous.  Everything is just as the seller said it would be–brand new, in the original boxes, and it’s the final 2010 printing.  I can’t believe my good luck.  And yes, I caressed the volumes as I lovingly placed them on the shelf.

Now that I have this beautiful set of Britannica encyclopedias staring at me in my office, I’m wondering–what’s next for Britannica and me?  Where do we go from here?  I’m definitely not going to just let these encyclopedias just sit here as beautiful decorations.

I must read them.

But where do I start?  How in the world do I go about reading some subset of the 33,000 pages sitting three feet away from me?  Even better, let’s just say–hypothetically–that I suddenly have grand visions of reading all of Britannica?  How in the world would I go about doing that?

I’ve got it.  I’m going to read the Britannica, or at least as much of Britannica a 48-yr old guy with two young kids can read in his spare time before his eyesight gives out.  But I’m not going to do something as pedestrian as simply reading them from A-ak to Zywiec.

I’m going to let chance drive my Britannica adventure.  Specifically, a random number generator is going to select the next article for me to read–article by article.  I don’t need to describe the gory details.  At this point, I’ll just say that I’ve created a spreadsheet.  It knows how many volumes there are and how many pages are in each volume.  And the spreadsheet will be selecting my first article, as well as the next 74,999 articles.

I’ll mention just one more little ground rule that I set for myself.  Unlike other encyclopedias, Britannica comes in two parts–a Micropaedia with shorter articles and a Macropaedia with longer articles.

It would somehow seem wrong to read an in depth article in the Macropaedia before I’ve had a chance to read its shorter cousin in the Micropaedia.  So the rule that I’m settling on is–I’ll let my spreadsheet pick either 1) an article in the Micropaedia or 2) an article in the Macropaedia on a subject whose shorter Micropaedia article I’ve already read.

I know that sounds crazy.  But it’s going to work.  I have faith that my random number scheme and my spreadsheet won’t let me down.  It will pick the perfect articles for me to read.

I have one final crazy thought.  What would be crazier than reading all of Britannica?  I think that I should blog about every article that I read.  Yes, 75,000 blog posts.  Telling the rest of the world what I’ve learned.  I’m not imagining some lengthy treatise rehashing what I’ve just learned.  Just a quick note to the universe that says something like, “hey, I just learned about Kabarega Falls”.  Somehow, telling the rest of the world that I’ve just learned about a topic will make the experience a little more real.

So that’s it.  I’m embarking on a journey to read Britannica.  All of Britannica.  Why the hell not?  Britannica is sitting here on my bookshelf, ready to go.  I have at least a little bit of free time.  And after all, I’m an encyclopedia geek.

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About Sean

Software developer in the Twin Cities area, passionate about software development and sailing.
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