We are living in an age in which everything electronic is praised as newer, better, and more advanced. The internet, we are constantly told, is the new oracle, is able to dispense absolute truth at the push of a few keyboard keys. This attitude has seeped into the arena of book publishing, where many observers have given electronic books unqualified praise as “better” and more “convenient” than print books.
This was why it was something of a relief to read about Russia’s decision to issue the latest version of the Great Russian Encycopedia (GRE) in hard copy. The entire thirty-six volume set will be available within the coming weeks. The GRE is the successor to the venerable Great Soviet Encyclopedia that existed before 1990. If you ask why this event is important, you should consider the reasons behind it.
Sergei Kravets, the editor of the GRE, has pointed to one of the disturbing truths of our times: that we live in a “post-truth” (as he calls it) era in which factual information can be easily manipulated. He might also have added another disturbing fact: information itself in the electronic age is more perishable than ever. Computer technicians tell us that we can barely even read emails written twenty-five years ago. How will our descendants, three hundred or four hundred years from now, ever know about our history, if everything has evaporated into an electronic nothingness?
Kravets made this point:
Russia needed a new encyclopedia that reflects modern society and consciousness, so this one is not a continuation of its Soviet predecessor. When we began, we lived in the epoch where ‘truth’ was valued. Now we seem to be going through a time of ‘post-truth,’ where all sorts of marketing, PR, and other kinds of dark information are circulating. We regard our encyclopedia as the territory of truth and objective assessment. It’s where people can go to check their information, and balance their views.
In an age of shifting and transitory reality, we need physical documents to touch and hold on to more than ever. Physical books have saved civilization in the past, and they will do so again in the future. Some of the most precious literary treasures of antiquity survived the Middle Ages on only a handful of manuscripts; for some authors (e.g., Tacitus) there was literally only one codex.
Before the age of the printed book, the vellum manuscript book was king, but such books were extremely costly and time-consuming to produce. Yet they did have one advantage: they literally could last many hundreds of years. I have seen vellum manuscripts from the thirteenth century that look like they will last, with proper care, for many more hundreds of years. Can we say the same thing about our electronic era? How many websites will even be around in ten, twenty, or fifty years?
When the age of the first encyclopedias dawned during the French Enlightenment, the philosophes (especially Diderot) imagined that such books would serve as both anchor and bulwark. They would provide an anchor for knowledge to prevent its deliberate corruption by the enemies of truth; and they would serve as a bulwark against ignorance and superstition. Modern encyclopedias in the West have lost sight—if they ever cared in the first place—of this mission. Encyclopedia Britannica stopped publishing a printed version of its books in 2010. Everywhere we go, we hear companies being praised for abandoning print. But the perishability of electronic information remains troubling. Without some sort of physical existence, knowledge has no permanence, no independent “reality.”
Perhaps the future is not online, despite what everyone says. Perhaps our descendants will become weary with the endless “choices” and “options” offered by the internet and instead opt for the simpler, more comforting choice of opening up a book. Printed books have a proven track record of many hundreds of years. Electronic books have no track record at all. Time will tell which form will outlast the other. Remember that the people living through the so-called “Dark Ages” also had no idea that they were mired in ignorance. It is true that the internet has helped disseminate knowledge, but it has also helped disseminate an extraordinary amount of mindless bilge.
But if you were raised in an era before the internet, you will understand the value that a heavy, rich, printed encyclopedia has. As a boy I remember my father bought a used set of the Encyclopedia Americana at the annual Quaker book fair in our town for only about twenty dollars. It got a huge amount of use and, looking back, helped generate an interest in the wider world. The old Soviet Encyclopedia was published in sumptuous leather volumes, and can still be found here and there in Russia today.
But even the GRE’s future is online. Kravets makes it clear that “this will be the very last paper encyclopedia we ever produce. The future is online.” He is surely right, at least for the foreseeable future. But the GRE still has a role to play: it will serve as the launching point for a Russia version of Wikipedia. If this can help reduce the amount of marketing, propaganda, and “dark information” online, then it will be a welcome addition to the arena of knowledge.
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