Brigitte Bowers: Online references no match for hard copy

March 24, 2012 

The demise of the hard copy Encyclopedia Britannica -- first printed in 1768 and today containing about 45 million words -- brought back memories of my childhood friend Nick, who is probably disheartened at the loss of the old Britannica. It was through Nick that I first glimpsed the magic of reference books.

I was 12 then and my family operated a boarding stable on the outskirts of Livermore. Nick and I, along with our friend Susan, spent long summer days riding at the gravel quarry that next to my family's property.

Nick, who was a genius -- literally -- looked like a mosquito with a big head. He was a terrible rider. He gripped the saddle horn and when his horse trotted he jangled up and down like a sack of loose change. But he kept up.

Together, the three of us passed our summers in a blur of adventure. We swam our horses in the big pond at the west end of the quarry, raced along wide gravel roads, galloped up and down hills and sometimes left the quarry to ride the seven or eight miles to Veteran's Park. By the end of every day, we were spent. It was all we could do to sit astride our horses as they plodded back to the ranch in the waning light.

It was on one such evening that Nick, too worn out to ride his bike home, decided to sleep over. After dinner, we went into the front room to eat ice cream, and it was there that Nick first saw my American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary resting on a bookshelf.

The previous Christmas, my grandmother had bought the Heritage for us with her S&H green stamps. It was the kind of dictionary you find on stands in public libraries, and in my memory it was at least a foot thick and weighed about 50 pounds, almost as much as Nick.

"This is boss," Nick said, pulling the dictionary from the shelf and cradling it in his bony arms. He sat on the couch and read the title page. "Think of it," he said. "All the words in English are right here in my lap."

Later that night I lay on the floor and watched "The House That Dripped Blood" on Channel 2 while Nick reclined in my father's Lay-Z-Boy and read through A.

Occasionally, we spoke to each other.

"Are you reading every single word?"

"Only the ones I don't know. Listen to this: abecedarian!"

"This guy is going to die. You can just tell."

"I'll bet you don't know what abiogenesis is."

And so we passed the night until I finally went to bed, leaving a pillow and blanket for Nick. The next morning I found him asleep in the recliner, his large head slumped sideways. The dictionary, open to the page for "beatific," was still on his lap.

Throughout that summer, Nick routinely asked to sleep over just so he could read my dictionary. He understood, so many decades ago, what I could not fathom until I became an adult: those translucent pages, light as snowflakes, were filled with the history of humankind.

Possibly the best thing about reference books is that while pursuing one topic, a reader might encounter another even more interesting than the first. In scanning the page for "marjoram," you might also find "Mariupol," a city on the Sea of Azov.

Online dictionaries are efficient, but they lack the serendipitous nature of their printed counterparts. There are the links, of course, which may lead the reader to more information, but links don't foster the joy of discovery, of having uncovered something no one else may have noticed.

I know the world must move on and those things that are no longer useful. Handheld juicers, rotary-dial telephones, slide rules and old dictionaries -- all must find their way to the local antique and collectible stores. It is the way of progress.

Still, I believe something worthwhile has been lost with the end of the printed Britannica.

Online dictionaries can't come close to inspiring imagination in the same way the printed Heritage inspired Nick. The online Britannica, while it may be an effective research tool, will never match the enchantment of the printed version.

The author teaches English at UC Merced and Merced College.

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