Saturday, March 31, 2012

Last Thoughts on the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1771 – 2012.

Earlier this month, I happened to catch an obituary of sorts that largely slipped by the general public: After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was going to stop its publication. Perhaps it was a reflection of the Britannica as an anachronism that the mainstream press paid this little mind. But I found this intriguing, and worth considering.

It is strange to think of the concept of an encyclopedia as novel, but in 1771, the title page of the first three-volume edition announced its purpose: “Encyclopaedia Britannica; OR, A DICTIONARY OF ARTS and SCIENCES, COMPILED UPON A NEW PLAN. In WHICH The different SCIENCES and ARTS are digested into distinct treaties or systems; AND The various TECHNICAL TERMS, &c., are explained as they occur in the order of the Alphabet.”

Cue the trumpets.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica quickly became the center of its field; George Washington owned a set. By the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, it was in its fourth edition at 20 volumes; by the time the Statue of Liberty went up, it was in its historic ninth edition at 24 volumes, which marked the peak of its scholarly sophistication; by the time the Titanic sunk, it was in its eleventh edition, at 28 volumes, which was the first time the volumes were published largely simultaneously (as opposed to serially); by the time Franklin Roosevelt said that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” it was in its fourteenth edition at 23 volumes, in which the editors tried to simplify and edit the language for a greater (read: American) audience. This edition also saw the beginning of “continual revision” to ensure that it would never go out-of-date.

And by the time of the Watergate scandal, The Encyclopaedia Britannica was in its fifteenth edition, which was now published as a 12-volume Micropaedia of short articles and a 17-volume Macropaedia of long ones, depending on whether the reader wanted an overview or an in-depth article. It was still publishing in this model by 2010, the date of what would be its final print edition. It was 32 volumes and 129 pounds at the time of death, with a price-tag of $1395. But with only 8,000 copies of the 2010 edition sold, and an additional 4,000 sitting in a warehouse, the Encyclopaedia Britannica died of old age, neglect, and disuse.

It’s easy to see why – ever since Aristole set out to collect all of human knowledge into one set of writing, there’s been a human compulsion to gather all knowledge possible in one place for reference. Knowledge is power, and, not coincidentally, the apple of Man’s fall. To truly be able to gather it all for mass consumption would be both the Holy Ark of the Covenant and Pandora’s Box.

Until a few weeks ago, the Encyclopaedia Britannica was the oldest continual holdout of this romantic notion to gather all information in one place; tellingly, it was when the series transferred from the Old World to the New World at the turn of the 20th Century that the articles got shorter and things began to get cut. Although it would technically reach its peak sale in 1990 (120,000 sets in the United States), it would quickly fall victim to the onslaught of the digital age. And then, as we all know, being able to use a computer allows you to have all of the human knowledge at your fingertips, at least in theory.

It is truly the end of an era, when the big and bulky bounded volume gives way to the tiny and weightless computer article. Of course, Encyclopaedia Britannica pitches that they are staying modern and effective by transferring their work to an online edition, to which one can subscribe for $70 a year.

It probably would bring things full-circle to now use the new online Encyclopaedia Britannica to research the old print Encyclopaedia Britannica, only I wouldn’t know.

I got all of my information for this article from Wikipedia for free.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

On Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie, & the Walking Woody Guthrie Jukebox.

When I went to see Nora Guthrie speak about her father Woody this afternoon, she began describing her father’s legacy with a little story about him going to New York City for the first time in the early spring of 1940.

“On the first night he was there, he wrote a song called ‘Government Road,’” she began. “On the second night, he wrote a song called ‘Jesus Christ.’ On the third night, he wrote a song called ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ And on the fourth night, he wrote a song about women’s hats.”

“And I think that,” she said proudly, “says it all: Politics, spirituality, America, and women.” It’s true – Woody’s mind was as far-reaching and all-encompassing as the pastures of plenty he famously sang about. It made me think of Andy Warhol’s “Pop idea,” which he would articulate some two decades after Woody’s trip to New York City that “anyone could do anything – so naturally, we were trying to it all.”

In fact, Nora Guthrie practically paraphrased Warhol’s words, explaining how she felt society was all about focus, focus, focus. She felt that her father was a man who didn’t worry about focus. He simply did whatever he wanted – writing stories, drawing, and playing music. He was a sort of Tom Joad/Renaissance Man.

The cruel irony was that, by the time Nora Guthrie was old enough to have memories of her father, he was already suffering from Huntington’s Disease. Her role to her father was one of a caretaker. Because of the disease, Woody could not control his limbs and it was very difficult for him to speak, and when he did, it wasn’t about Communism or fascism, it was usually to ask for food or drink. When your body is uncontrollably shaking and twitching, she explained, you are constantly burning calories.

There was music all around when she was growing up, she remembered, just none of it came from her father. She recalled the likes of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs coming to the house to visit with Woody and the family, and when they did, his requests were always the same: Woody wanted to hear his own music. I had always read this, and took this as some reflection of Woody’s self-importance (there’s the legend that when Woody heard one of Dylan’s earliest compositions, he said that Dylan wasn’t much of a songwriter, but he had a great singing voice). Maybe so, but Nora had a different spin on things. She saw it her father’s confirmation that his music would live on, that he had started something that would outlive him and everyone else.

Not everyone got this. But people like Bob Dylan did. “When you came to see my father,” Nora explained, “you came to serve him. It wasn’t a question of what he could do for you. It was a question of what you could bring to him. And usually, that was a chance to hear his own music.”

It is unclear just how much, if any, of Woody Guthrie owned of his own records. I should’ve asked, but didn’t think to. And we know that he was too sick to play guitar or sing his own music. So when a kid came along like Bob Dylan, who was basically a walking Woody Guthrie jukebox, it only makes sense that Woody wanted his own music to be played.

For, unlike people today, Woody Guthrie had no iPod. But he had a Bob Dylan. Which is much cooler. An iPod can play back and preserve your songs, true, but a Bob Dylan can do all of that, plus take influence from it to form his own music, and in turn inspire others to do the same.

I, for one, would love to go back in time and listen in on some of the afternoons where a young Dylan was playing for his idol, but I can’t – I know of no known recordings of it.

But maybe that’s all the more appropriate.