From A-Ak To Zywiec

If western civilization were equipped with a cultural Richter scale, the meter would have easily hit 6 or 7 when the Eneyclopaedia Britannica, awash in red ink, recently announced that it was looking for buyers or investors. Having watched revenues take a 30 percent plunge in the last five years, the Chicago company desperately needs a buyer who can give it a cash infusion. But if this is bad news for Britannica, it is equally worrisome to anyone who grew up convinced that on the Sunday night before the Monday morning that the term paper was due, you could trust the Britannica to save your bacon (see: 11th- HOUR PANIC, PROCRASTINATION). If this grand old bulwark of the culture were to fold, what hope is left for America's youth? Or for civilization generally? How did this happen? One big reason: the computer.

Buy a computer these days, and the dealer will probably toss in an encyclopedia on CD-ROM as a freebie, the way a car dealer might throw in some nice floor mats or wheel covers. The encyclopedia you get is not a Britannica, still regarded as the top of the line. Oh, the Britannica is available on CD-ROM and through the Internet, but without the multimedia sound and graphics of its competitors. And--though its information is premium brand--it sells for about 10 times more: $995. (The print version starts at $1,499.)

This is not just a question of which company can most quickly convert pages of text to electronic data. The entire encyclopedia industry has been scrambling to adapt to a swiftly changing cultural landscape. Some of these changes are devastatingly simple, such as the near death of door-to-door sales, the traditional means of peddling encyclopedias. "Women aren't home to buy things, and people don't want to let strangers in their houses," notes Sandy Whiteley, editor of the Reference Books Bulletin.

But other changes--the explosion of in-formation in the last century, multiculturalism, the rise of computers--are more profound, and encyclopedia editors have proven no wiser than the rest of us at untangling these trends. Some observers even wonder if the days of the multivolume encyclopedia aren't over for good. "At the turn of the century, it was possible to have what looked like a comprehensive organization of general knowledge," says Charles Simmons, who last year coedited "All There Is to Know," a collection of readings from the legendary 11th edition of the Britannica, whose authors included such eminent Victorians as Leslie Stephen and John Adding-ton Symonds. "After that, there was too much knowledge to put into what could pass for a comprehensive encyclopedia."

Nonsense, says critic Camille Paglia. "More than ever encyclopedias are crucial," she argues, and the more comprehensive the better. "It is intellectual laziness and postmodernist navel-gazing and just lack of IQ that would make any humanities people say, Oh, it's just impossible to have a general encyclopedia. We need world encyclopedias."

Most computerized encyclopedias have only 8 million or 9 million words, compared with Britannica's 44 million, but the discs are popular. What Britannica's troubles signal, more than anything, is a big change in our taste for intellectual furniture. Not long ago, owning a set of Britannicas was like owning a Buick. A Buick symbolized financial success but also-and equally important-prudence and respectability. In the same sense, those hefty Britannica volumes with their wine-dark spines marching four and a half feet down the living-room bookshelf sent a clear message that the owners were serious, learned people simply by virtue of owning a set. A home computer transmits the same signal.

And it's not just a matter of status. The American passion for encyclopedias or pianos--and lately for computers-has less to do with impressing the neighbors than it does with our perennial interest in self-improvement. Why buy cultural furniture when you could just as easily spend the dough on a recliner rocker?

Last week word also came through that General Motors announced that it would no longer produce the Buick Roadmaster, the Chevrolet Caprice and the Cadillac Fleetwood. The market for those status-symbol behemoths has evaporated (See: DINOSAURS). By contrast, the market for acoustic pianos is more than holding its own. In 1994 28,999 grand pianos were sold in this country. In a similar vein, the most intriguing fact in the Britannica saga is not that U.S. sales fell from 117,000 sets in 1990 to 51,000 last year but that such a whopping number of people still chose the books. That may be small solace to Britannica, but it speaks volumes about our love of tradition and our craving for tools that enrich our lives.