One thing I’m going to miss about the print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, now that it’s been consigned to the dumpster of history, is the spines – all 45 of them, ranked across the shelf like stoic beefeaters.


They’re handsome things, somehow managing to be imposing and inviting at the same time. But the best part is that each one is branded with a pair of index words, there to tell you where the volume begins and where it ends. You thus get a bunch of almost-random two-word phrases to conjure with. Some don’t rise above their functionality: India Ireland, for instance, or Accounting Architecture. But others open up new and unexpected territory to wander in. Here, for the record, are some of my favorites:

Freon Holderlin (a man I’d like to meet, despite his reputation for coldness)

Menage Ottawa (a perfect oxymoron)

Chicago Death (Jack White’s new side project)

Light Metabolism (what the Theory of Everything, once discovered, will be called)

Excretion Geometry (a field understood by only seven people in the world)

Arctic Biosphere (Freon Holderlin lives here, according to rumor)

Krasnokamsk Menadra (when I take up meditation, this will be what I chant)

And my favoritemost of all:

Decorative Edison

5 thoughts on “Spinelessness

  1. Lee Rickard

    This actually raises a point that I’ve worried about in the shift from printed to electronic reference works. When we had an argument over a word, we’d go to the compact OED and look it up. In doing so, we were frequently distracted by words that turned up at the tops of the pages, and learned some interesting things as a result. The same was true of the encyclopedia; you could open at random and learn something you hadn’t been looking for. This is now being lost.

    Isn’t there something important in ‘random learning’? There has been for me. I still wander the library stacks, open to the attraction of a book’s spine. And I always check out the book return carts; after all, if they were interesting to somebody else, they might be interesting to me. What do we lose when, by virtue of the medium, learning becomes targeted?

  2. Paulmorriss

    The Children’s Britannica has the word “to” between the first and last topic in the volume, so you have poetic phrases like

    “seed to star”

    or practical ones like

    “track to wall”.

  3. Robert Smith

    I heard your post mentioned on the podcast “A Way With Words” and just wanted to mention that although I have a Kindle I still much prefer holding a book.

    Also I do think there would be something much more satisfying telling a person you discovered a fact between Excretion and Geometry than saying you found it on Wikipedia ;-)

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