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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.