Is it time to bury the old tomes of knowledge?

A professor of mine, a man of great erudition, wants to give away his life’s most valued possessions: a 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica, some assorted dictionaries, general knowledge books, great literary classics and his tattered Roget’s Thesaurus.

By Anthony F. D’silva

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Published: Mon 20 Sep 2010, 10:29 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:32 AM

The sad truth is that there are no takers. And his wife is eager to fulfill her lifelong wish of consigning those relics to the bin, as they left room for nothing else in their poky little flat in Mumbai, a city that has some of the pokiest flats in the world. Flashback 1980s.

As a bright-eyed student of journalism, I used to hang on to every word that came out of the mouth of this erudite professor of world history. He was a walking encyclopedia, and we knew the reason why when he revealed to us a sobering fact: at the height of his career he was faced with a strange dilemma—whether to buy a car or the Encyclopedia Britannica. He chose the latter.

The tools of knowledge acquisition and research have changed dramatically over the years. But in the professor’s heyday, the status of a learned man was directly proportional to the number of books that lined his library or bookcase.

The Encyclopedia Britannica, the father of all reference books, at one point came in 32 volumes and contained 65,000 articles (some of them written by highly respected names), 44 million words and 23,000 illustrations. If you owned an Encyclopedia Britannica (which was usually displayed in the living room, much like a grand piano), you were a big shot, a man of learning and refined taste.

Owners used to look on this treasure with the same passion as successful men today look at Porsches and Lamborghinis. There have been men, including celebrities like George Bernard Shaw, who had read all the volumes, cover to cover.

The other inseparable companion of the lettered man was dictionaries. At one point, I remember lining my study table with half a dozen of them, including The Oxford English Dictionary, Chambers Dictionary, Random House Dictionary and Merriam Webster Dictionary. We had the luxury of time to flip from one to the other, in search of a better word or clearer definition of a particular word or phrase. I remembering buying my first Roget’s Thesaurus (a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms, for the uninitiated) with the same excitement as today’s youngsters would feel on buying an iPhone 3GS, and pouring over it, in an effort to improve my vocabulary. Then there were books of quotations that were another indispensible part of a bookworm. You also had the mandatory Wren and Martin books that taught you about gerunds, oxymoron and onomatopoeia, and a lot more about grammar and good writing. And for the hardcore linguists, there was Fowler’s Modern English Language, which explained peculiar phrases along with their history.

It was an era when television was yet to become a noisy invader and radio came on the air just for a few hours daily. A room full of books was a sane man’s only solace and refuge.

For serious research, we had to go to a well-stocked library, pour over books for hours and make copious notes. In Mumbai, the British Council Library at Nariman Point used to be the haunt of serious readers, even if it was ventilated by ceiling fans. A little distance away, the American Library vied for membership with lower fees and air-conditioning. I remember spending hours reading US newspapers, Rolling Stone and Time magazine issues.

Enter the Internet, Google, Wikipedia and countless search engines. Reference books have been given a summary burial. Now, you just log on and you can access information on any topic under the sun and above, at the click of the mouse. And you have CD-ROMs, CDs, DVD and VCDs, which neatly condense knowledge into a small space. Finally, you have e-Books that seem determined to write the obituary of the written book.

My venerable history professor is about to become history. Surrounded by his priceless tomes of knowledge, he will perhaps never understand why there are no takers for his treasures. Those tools of knowledge of acquisition will probably die with him, whether for good or bad, I don’t know.

Anthony F. D’Silva is a Dubai-based writer and media relations consultant

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