I was home one evening in 1986 getting ready for a writing session when the doorbell rang. Suzanne Vega was singing Marlene on the Wall on the stereo and I turned it down before opening the door to a 50-year old stranger standing awkwardly in front of me in a jacket and a tie.
He was selling the Encyclopædia Britannica.
It was not clear to me how he knew that I was a budding editor but he was quick to point out that a young man of my profession needed reliable reference material.
The 15th edition of Britannica had been published a year earlier and with 33 volumes it boasted that it held “the sum of all human knowledge.”
Those were the days before the World Wide Web and Google. Searching for information meant spending hours in a library instead of simply firing up a browser.
I did have a computer back then, an Apple Macintosh Plus, which was sneered at by my colleagues who considered it just a toy. They all used Micom 2000 word processors to write.
|The Apple Macintosh Plus micro-computer made a significant contribution to bringing computing to the masses, as long as they could afford the over $2,500 purchase price. Public domain photo provided by Apple Wiki.|
I told the salesman I would think about it and call him to let him know of my decision. He gave me his card and left disappointed. I then went back to writing my story regarding the structure of the new National Gallery of Canada which was under construction. To me it looked like the skeleton of a dinosaur.
“You should buy it,” said Aaron. “Knowledge is priceless. Did you know that if you read the entire Encyclopædia Britannica the University of Oxford will give you a degree?”
“Is that true?”
“Of course it is, don’t you know anything? The Encyclopædia Britannica is a British institution! Frankly, I don’t know why I waste my time discussing with a peasant like you who does not understand the value of learning!”
Aaron’s argument made an impression on me and I decided to invest in perfecting my knowledge.
Of course, I know now that nobody ever received a free university degree by reading a complete encyclopædia.
I also learned that Encyclopædia Britannica is actually a Scottish institution (established in Edinburgh in the 18th century) and that by the mid-1980s it had been owned by American interests for over 60 years.
When I called back, the encyclopædia salesman was shocked that I had kept my word. I told him that, yes, I was ready for enlightenment and that I would buy the leather-bound gilt-edged onionskin edition.
|At its peak, Encylopædia Britannica employed up to 2,300 door-to-door salesmen among which Empire of the Sun author J. G. Ballard and actor Woody Harrelson's father.|
When my wife and I divorced in 2000, we sold the house and I prepared to move to a small apartment. Looking at all my belongings, I knew I needed to get rid of many of the things I had acquired over the years.
But before I moved, a friend came to visit from out of town and stayed at the house for a few days. To thank me for my hospitality, she gave me the Encyclopædia Britannica on CD-ROM, a $50 value. I thought this electronic version would be adequate for my newly restricted living quarters.
I packed my leather-bound encyclopædia and took it to a used bookstore where I was offered $25 for the complete set of 33 volumes. I felt insulted by this contempt of knowledge.
When I calmed down, I decided to entrust my literary treasure to a small library I knew in the countryside, close to the haunted house I once owned.
I drove there only to be turned down by the librarian who claimed she did not have the shelf space. I then offered it to a literacy organization which also rejected the donation.
I regretfully realized that my initial $1,800 investment in knowledge was actually worthless.
And then it struck me: I had been totally mistaken about this prized possession of mine. An encyclopædia is not knowledge, it’s merely information. Information becomes knowledge only once it’s processed. How many people have owned encyclopædias without ever reading them?
Now that the Discovery Channel was available for all to watch, my beautifully-bound encyclopaedia, was perceived as not only cumbersome but useless.
A week later, I was visiting my old friend Asaph Mikhailovich, a well-read man cursed with a crippling affliction. I told him how I had been trying to dispose of my encyclopædia. He quietly looked at me and said:
– You know, when I want to consult Britannica, I have to ride my wheelchair ten blocks to the public library.