For several weeks I’ve had a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the back seat of my car. An elderly couple no longer wanted the set, printed in 1953, so I took it and found a good home for the EB with an artist who could use materials in her projects. To my surprise, the donation turned into a memorable exchange of books—more on that later.
As a kid, my family also had the EB, from the late 1960s. I loved flipping through the pages to see the waves of inscrutable scientific formulas and dense discussions of esoteric topics, with stopovers at the human reproductive system. The age of random walks through learning enveloped me in the thousands of pages.
That was then, and this is now: EB no longer publishes a print editions. It’s one more learned website. With the rise of Wikipedia and the supposed hurricane-like velocity of information, if not knowledge, what role could possibly remain for a printed encyclopedia?
I pulled out Volume 12, “Hydroz to Jerem,” to see what it contained. I immediately had great child hood memories of libraries and books when I heft the volume and inhaled its supremely bookish aroma of leather covers and pages. Compared to the weightless ions of on-screen information, Vol. 12 had a feel of substance. Like a museum or that now-vanishing entity known as a bookstore, it encouraged both focused search and random delight.
I chose Vol. 12 to see what EB had to say about the then-toddler State of Israel. It warranted two pages, with a dramatic opening:
After nearly 2,000 years of statelessness and dispersion, and half a century after the first Zionist congress at Basle, Switz., the Jewish people asserted their independence, fought for it and won it. May 14, 1948, was the climax of perhaps the most tragic decade in the history of the Jewish people. . . . The rebirth of a Jewish state was the result of an international situation which favoured the fulfillment of the Zionist aim. However, the Arab awakening – which, with the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, was one of the results of World War I – complicated the Zionist task.
After spending most of the entry on the War of Independence, the entry moves on to territory and population, economy and finance, and labour, education and culture. The bibliography includes Arthur Koestler’s Promise and Fulfillment: Palestine 1917-1949.
Other topics merited far more space. Indeed, it kicked off with seven illustrated pages on hydrozoa, marine animals that include jellyfish. Iceland and Icelandic literature get 13 pages. Impressionism gets only two pages, but with six illustrations. I particularly enjoyed the column on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, “the official list of books authoritatively forbidden to members of the Roman Catholic Church, together with the general rules of canon law which declares certain classes of books forbidden ipso jure; i.e., without specific mention.” The most recent Indies edition at the time was 1940. The EB notes, “In 1949, the Holy Office declared that all books, papers etc., which champion the doctrine or action of Communists are equally forbidden, without special mention, under the terms of the existing law.”
The EB set went to my friend Debra Sherwood, the founder and executive director of the start-up Center for Art and Mindfulness in Greenwich, Connecticut. Like me, she has a taste for found objects with scholarly or artistic value that she can use in collages and other projects. For example, she once took a 1920s typewriter off my hands.
When she came to pick up the Britannicas, she had a surprise for me—and I always value surprises in life because I get relatively few of them. She had two jumbo-sized Jewish books, given to her by an employee of her art studio who had received them from yet another person. So they move through different hands until they reached mine. Debra must understand me well, because I always like Jewish books, the older the better. One was the Talmudic tractate Baba Kamma, dealing with damages and torts. Since I recently started attending a Talmud discussion group the book resonated with me (even if I can’t understand what’s written in it, beyond being able to sound out the Hebrew or Aramaic).
The other volume, even denser and heavier, was a yitzkor (memorial) book for the Polish shtetl of Tshijevo (alternatively Czyzewo and Tshizheva), published in Israel in 1961. Primarily in Yiddish, it holds essays and photos about the town, to the extent I can read the Yiddish. The book’s mass complements its somber content. I found the book online, page by page, but to hold a physical copy and move through its stories—that’s a real-world sensation. Moving beyond the digital realm, I felt the terrible reality of Tshijevo’s destruction, as well as the determination of its survivors to live and remember.