This post originally appeared April 22, 2018, on the Chile Today Hot Tamale! website. (www.chiletodayhottamale.net)
One week ago I received the very last Book of the Year annual update from Encyclopedia Britannica. The truth is, I received the last proper update last year, Book of the Year 2017, covering the events of 2016. This year's “update” was a celebration and retrospective of Britannica's 250 years of publication, from 1768 through 2018.
I bought my set of Britannicas in 1987, about which, more later. It was terribly expensive, though I can't give an exact price. I knew that they would not be able to continue publishing a bound volume for very long when, in the late 1990s, I purchased the Encyclopedia Britannica on 2 CD ROMs, for a price of $99. As I mentioned, I do not remember the exact price I paid in 1987, but I suspect the Britannica was at least $1,000, and probably more.
I have always enjoyed these yearbooks. My favorite portions of the yearbook are, or were, the month by month, day by day recap of the preceding year, and the obituaries. Every now and again I used the data portion of the yearbook (countries, forms of governments, GDP, population, etc.), but for the most part, these annual updates were trips down memory lane.
The price for these updates has been consistent over the years. This year's book cost $76.95, with another $7.95 for shipping and handling, for a total of $84.90. That is exactly what I paid last year. It is little wonder that these books are being discontinued. Why pay about $85 for an update, when you can pay $99 each year and get the whole kit and caboodle?
Back in 1987, I lived in a small mountain town in Virginia. It was so small that it didn't even have a bookstore. The community did a nice job of supporting a small library, but after living in Baltimore, and using the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I found the library to be inadequate. In Lexington, about 45 miles away, I could use the libraries on the VMI and Washington and Lee campuses, but that was a good 45 minute drive each way. So, I ended up in a variety of book clubs.
I had two sets of encyclopedias at that time, both published in 1957, and a shelf full of annual updates. Really, I needed a new encyclopedia, so I was overjoyed when, one day in the late spring, I opened my monthly catalog from the Library of Science and found that LOS members could buy the new, updated Encyclopedia Britannica at a discount. I filled in the return mailer.
My wife always accused me of being a sucker for a salesman, especially one with a hard luck story, so I figured I should head this one off at the pass. I told her that I had just sent in a postcard requesting a visit from a Britannica salesman, and that I intended to buy a set, so please, no comments about my ability to withstand a sales pitch. She informed me that the children were too young for the Britannica, and perhaps we should buy a child's edition. I told her that this set was for me, and we would address the kiddies' need for an encyclopedia at the appropriate time. She was not happy, but she said no more.
The salesman came on a Monday night. It was his third day on the job. I showed him to my living room, where he set up a small flip chart on the coffee table. Page one stated, in bold, capital lettering: “The New Encyclopedia Britannica”. I said, “That looks good, I'll take a set.” He looked at me with the funniest look, and flipped to the next page on the chart: “Completely Revised and Updated”. “Fine,” I said, “I'll take a set.” He looked at me again, and decided I was serious. He flipped through another dozen charts in search of an appropriate one. This chart talked about the three bindings available: the expensive one, the cheap one, and the one in between. “I'll take the one in between.” He finally decided I was serious, and pulled out a contract, which he began to fill out.
About that time my wife walked into the room, and a light bulb went off. “Hey, do you guys offer a child's Britannica?” He responded that normally they did offer one, but that the child's version was in the process of being updated and rewritten, so they did not have one to offer at the moment. But, he said, Britannica had recently purchased Compton's Encyclopedia, and they were selling that as a child's encyclopedia in the interim. I said, “Fine, I'll take a set.” My wife harrumphed, and left the room. The salesman looked at me as if I were completely nuts, decided I wasn't, struck through something on the contract, and began anew.
While he was amending the contract, I saw a brochure on the coffee table, advertising the Great Books of the Western World. I don't know why I hadn't put 2 and 2 together. The Great Books series was edited by a couple of University of Chicago fellows (Robert Maynard Hutchins, and Mortimer Adler), and Britannica was headquartered in Chicago. So, I asked, “Do you guys sell the Great Books of the Western World?” The salesman looked at me with a wary eye, and nodded. “I'll take a set.” He tore up the contract he had been working on, pulled a new form out of his briefcase, and began again.
That night, the salesman's third night on the job, I dropped a bit more than $2,000. When they arrived in a few weeks, they included the 1987 annual update. I built a bookcase for the encyclopedias and updates, and a separate bookcase for the Great Books. They have given me great pleasure over the years. But that era is over.
I suspect that they don't even offer the CD ROMs any more. My guess is you pay an annual fee, and have access to a set of Britannicas somewhere in the cloud. Maybe, one day, I'll give it a try. In the meantime, I cherish those books, and feel somewhat saddened that I will no longer receive an update in the mail every April.
I really do hate change. I haven't been all that happy since Queen Victoria died.