With the advent of Wikipedia, I assumed that a world populated by printed editions containing the entire store of human knowledge had long since passed me by. But working with specialized software and the mother of all databases, mad genius and multidisciplinary artist Michael Mandiberg has converted the whole of Wikipedia into print-on-demand editions retailing at $80 dollars a pop, or $500,000 for the full set of roughly 7,600 volumes. That's right — the world's first online encyclopedia is now available in print.
As an aficionado of reference material, I spent many years sneaking into my family den to secret away hefty volumes about Edison's first inventions, or the dietary restrictions of that turtle. And years later in elementary school, Microsoft Encarta came along on CD-ROM and it seemed as though something wondrous was lost to the world. Never mind the online behemoth that is Wikipedia. And yet, now, if you have the means and the motivation, you yourself can purchase a print edition of Wikipedia. You may need some new bookshelves, though.
Of course, with the Internet as fluid as it is, you wouldn't be the only one wondering why anyone would pay $500,000 for a reference guide that'll be rendered obsolete almost as soon as it hits the shelves. According to Mandiberg himself, the project began as an aesthetic curiosity — an exploration of what modernity might look like if it were returned to a more old-fashioned format.
Given that few among us have the resources to — let alone the shelf space — to make room for Wikipedia in print, Mandiberg's project feels dangerously close to a narcissistic gamble on the whims of millionaires rather than a grounded exploration of the needs of the people. Yet, when you take the time to gaze upon the minimal white expanse of Mandiberg's print edition, knowledge seems to take on a new significance. In many ways, this project belongs to each one of us — the strained, ongoing, not uncomplicated enterprise of a global community. We can find ourselves in Wikipedia, and now those selves reside upon a shelf.
So would you pay half a mil for the pleasure of perusing your modern self in print? I certainly wouldn't. To paraphrase the Barenaked Ladies, if I had a million dollars, I would buy a house.... or a car, something that would get me on my way rather than an artifact of where I have been. And yet, despite my misgivings, my heart skips a beat when I imagine 7,600 volumes aligned side by side, ripe with the answers to all the world's questions. There's magic in the presence of the printed page, and even if we can't (or won't) pay for the pleasure, isn't there something sublime in contemplating the existence of the Internet made into something tangible? I can't help but think there is a magical element to this flight of literary fancy that makes it worthwhile.
And BTW, if you happen to find yourself in New York City, make your way to Denny Gallery on the Lower East Side for the exhibition “From Aaaaa! To ZZZap!”, which features Mandiberg's first 1,980 volumes. Or, simply head to lulu.com and consider making a purchase — after all, window shopping is free of charge... just like Wikipedia.
Image: See-ming Lee / Flickr