What We’ve Lost With the Demise of Print Encyclopedias


It might be argued that mapping out human knowledge has always, necessarily, been a quixotic project, akin to Casaubon’s “Key to All Mythologies.” It is very likely that few readers ever actually delved very deeply into the “Propaedia,” or made much use of Diderot and d’Alembert’s “map” to navigate the wilds of the 32 individual volumes. The vast majority of people who actually consulted these encyclopedias most likely turned straight to the alphabetical articles, to hunt down specific pieces of information. Today, we use the online resources in the same way. But the ambition mattered. It mattered that one could look at a stack of volumes and say: Here are vast libraries, distilled down into an essence of human knowledge, and organized in a logical order. The books testified to the hope that, ultimately, human beings had at least a measure of control over the overpowering torrents of facts and ideas that they collectively produce. Perhaps no single human being could truly have control—what more quixotic enterprise is there than reading through an encyclopedia from cover to cover? But at least the existence of the books gave us the sense that some points of dry land remained amidst the floods, some fragments shored against our ruins. The disappearance of these grand printed volumes, while inevitable, is yet another depressing sign of just how much we are now adrift in the limitless oceans of information.

more from David Bell at The New Republic here.