I have to say, despite being a lover of books, that I’m not at all sad to see the Encyclopedia Brittanica moving to web only publication. A lot of people seem to share this sentiment. Even Robert Wright of the Atlantic, who was “filled…with a desire to caress a volume of Britannica” admitted that “I can’t remember the last time I got out a volume of Britannica for the purpose of actually using it.” I can share this sentiment.
If anything, the story made me reflect on the idea that I would have been much better off growing up in the digital age. I have been thinking about this a lot lately because I recently started taking an online programming course with Udacity. Udacity is a nascent online university started by a prominent Standord professor that even is its beta form is incredibly effective and totally free. It’s the first online course that I have really stuck with because they aren’t merely posting lectures to their website; it’s interactive and it’s challenging and I’m learning a lot.
I often wonder, “what if I had something like this when I was growing up?” I had a very nice childhood in many respects, but I also suffered from a lack of intellectual resources. The closest real library I lived near was four miles away, the closest bookstore was about five miles away – that’s a long walk. Even if I could get to a bookstore my mother, who raised me and my sister alone on something close to minimum wage, couldn’t afford to buy us much. I wonder sometimes how much further ahead I would be in meeting my own intellectual goals if I had something like Khan Academy or Udacity when I was a young kid; something that I would not have to rely on adults to get me, whether a car ride to the library or money to buy a book. In many respects my real education did not begin until I was in college.
I like print books. I own a lot of them and I buy them impulsively. I too have childhood memories of carrying them around and reading them in a tree just outside of my grandmother’s house. I have moved seven times in the past four years and every time that meant hand carrying, with help of one or two friends, hundreds of books across three boroughs and up many flights of stairs. I like them so much that when I find one that’s interesting I take pictures of them and blog about them. But I would give it all up to have grown up in a time when the resources of the Internet were available. People who see the internet as something categorically inimical to the life of the mind probably grew up in places that had ample intellectual resources and so just don’t see the need for anything else.