Yes, I Just Paid $1,600 for a Set of Encyclopaedia Britannica

(Photo: Stewart Butterfield)

Encyclopaedia Britannica has declared that its latest print edition will be its last; from here on out, everything will be digital. Jim Romenesko rounds up coverage from the Times, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. I am not much of an impulse buyer, but when I read that there were only 800 sets remaining — that’s what they say, at least — I jumped right in and paid nearly $1,600 to have a set shipped to my home in New York.

It arrived the other day in three heavy boxes. It was thrilling. The fact is that my wife and I have each, separately, gotten rid of complete sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica over the years. Mine was a yard-sale purchase; hers was a nice leather-bound set that had been a graduation gift. Neither of us felt much like hanging onto them, even before the web changed the way we all research things.

So why pay so much money for a third set of something that we’d gotten rid of twice?

For me, there were at least two reasons. The first is that I once unloaded my record collection, roughly 2,000 albums, because the CD revolution had begun and records were no longer being made. And even though I really had to get rid of the records — I just didn’t have the space for them — I’ve regretted that decision many times in the years since.

The second reason is that news of the discontinuation of the print edition threw me into a Proustian rush that overtook my senses. I grew up with the World Book encyclopedia, not Britannica. That said, when I was a kid the experience of getting lost in the encyclopedia was so powerful that it remains one of my favorite distant memories. It wasn’t all pleasant. I marveled at how much there was to know while simultaneously mourning how much I would never learn.

I don’t know where we’ll find space for the new set. My wife understands my purchase but isn’t wholly enthusiastic about it. My kids are essentially baffled by my purchase. My son, however, did quickly find an upside. When I told him what I’d paid and that there were allegedly only a few hundred sets remaining, he immediately started wondering what kind of markup I could fetch.

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  1. Rachelle says:

    The same day they announced they would be discontinued, I thought I need to get one of these for my family.

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  2. Neil (SM) says:

    I had a cheap set of “Funk and Wagnalls” encyclopedias my mother bought from the grocery store. Every few weeks some new volumes would be for sale and eventually I ended up with a complete set.

    Served me well at least through grade school when at that age you could use encyclopedias for at least one source of reference for reports and such. I remember even then how some of the info felt dated after a few years, but it seemed like a bit much to actually update a whole set that often.

    Britannica was, of course, a much better product, but also much more than anyone was willing to pay for.

    Still the ones I had were fun.

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  3. dci125 says:

    “I marveled at how much there was to know while simultaneously mourning how much I would never learn.”

    This expresses exactly how I felt reading through my encyclopedia set as a kid.

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    • Tree says:

      When my World Book encycolpedia set showed me how much there was out there to learn, I decided to read the whole set from A to Z. I think I gave up somewhere around “Avocado”. It was a humbling experience.

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    • Matt says:

      “I know that I know nothing” – Socrates.
      Perhaps the biggest step into true wisdom and knowledge!

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  4. evotech says:

    I am a very “Keep nothing” kind of person. I do’nt know if i will regret my many throwaways in later years, but i probably will.

    WHAT exactly, is so special about physical items that makes you want to have them take up so much space in your home? Can you put words on this?

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  5. Mike B says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Shanahan says:

      Is your name really Mike? You seem more like a Dick to me.

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      • Mike B says:

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    • Sean R. says:

      Yor response below assumes that rational behavior excludes nostalgia or scarcity… Humans can be rational based on the entirety of their experience… Meaning that the benefits of having the set to the author outweigh the cost in his mind because of the emotional connection… Nothing wrong with being a human being! Emotions have an evolutionary function that have worked well so far…. No need to deny them…
      Economists could greatly expanding their understanding of behavior by learning a little something about a thing called Sociology.

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  6. Eric M. Jones. says:

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    • Shanahan says:

      Lithium deficiency jokes! Ha ha! You have no idea what you are talking about.

      Don’t speak for readers. Speak for reader.

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  7. BV says:

    One of the few things left in print that is WORTH buying. If I had the money, (I’m a student), I’d buy a copy instantly. This kind of knowlege is not only worth keeping, but when I have children, they probably won’t know what a book looks like – not to mention, the authority of things like this are inconcievable.. Why wouldn’t someone want at least 1 copy of the world’s authorities to hand!!

    Nb – I just called my uncle to suggest that the family pool money, but he disagreed with my assessment by saying it’s not worth it and that copies of it will probably turn up in junk shops…. Since my uncle’s only, probably, slightly older than Mr. Dubner, maybe this isn’t a genarational thing?!

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Why would you spend that much money on the print-only version, rather than spending less on the DVD version (“Britannica 2012 Ultimate Reference DVD”) which is searchable and contains even more articles for just $40?

      I can understand why a library (especially a school library) might want a multi-volume paper set—you could hand one volume to each kid for a lesson on how to use encyclopedias for research—but why would an individual want a paper copy?

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  8. Gary L. says:

    I found a complete Encyclopedia Britannica from the early 1900s (1905 maybe?) in an old house my Dad used to rent. I remember flipping through it as a kid, fascinated. What gave it the most appeal was what was missing: 2 World Wars, the Great Depression, the Space Race, 11 amendments to the Constitution, non-violent resistance.

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