March 7, 2013

Burning the Encyclopedia


If you couldn’t get rid of your old print encyclopedia any other way, would you burn it? That’s what author and philosopher Julian Baggini did recently in a field in Somerset, an act he has recorded on film here:

And on which he reflects in a moody essay for Aeon Magazine this week. It’s an understandable action (even if it make me squirm in my desk chair): Baggini argues that not only couldn’t he get rid of the 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica any other way, but that he wanted to give the books some kind of fitting send-off. Initially he’d envisioned a public art project in which he’d “meticulously shred each volume and use the resulting ribbons to make papier-mâché facsimiles of the set I had destroyed.” But he ran out of space and was forced to make a speedy decision about the increasingly moldy books (though not, I would add, a particularly safe decision, since it’s not a great idea to burn black mold).

Baggini tracks his copies back to the days when the Encyclopedia Britannica was peddled to working class parents as the royal road through which their children would go on to brighter futures. They even had a slogan for it: “The Britannica Advantage,” and a series of pure guilt-trip ads. For instance, a television advertisement from the 1980s

shows a doughty schoolboy trudging through the rain in a yellow mac. ‘How far do your kids have to go when they need information in a hurry?’ asks the narrator. ‘I’d better get to the library before it closes!’ says the despairing kid. The voice-over continues: ‘If only he had the new Encyclopædia Britannica at home!’

However, Baggini seems to take the view that encyclopedia sets, once acquired, weren’t used or enjoyed, that they became just another piece of aspirational furniture. Maybe this was sometimes true, but in my childhood home, the encyclopedia had the same advantages of the dictionary—namely, that you went to it for one reason, but with the hidden agenda of looking up other random things grouped near the original entry. You’d gone to the effort to lug a big book out anyway—might as well look up “soccer” and “Siddhartha” and “succubus” and “Dame Edith Sitwell” all at once. We never thought it had the last word in information—it was obvious simply from being semi-awake and 7 years old that places changed, people got things wrong, there was always more to be said.

But the encyclopedia provided the opportunity for a fine, lazy ramble through the many corners of the world, and that was a pleasure in its own right. Maybe Baggini should have called me before sending his set up in flames?



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.