The brave new world of instant enlightenment at the touch of a computer key has claimed a heavyweight victim. The 2008 edition of Quid, France's favourite encyclopaedia, has been cancelled by its publisher for lack of interest. The annual sales of the 2,000-page tome, which reached more than 400,000 in the mid-1990s, collapsed to just over 100,000 last year.
The book's publisher, Robert Laffont, says the whole concept of the print encyclopedia can no longer compete with the free information available on the internet. Quid, produced by a family team for the past 45 years, has suffered especially at the hands of the French-language version of Wikipedia, the do-it-yourself web encyclopaedia.
Dominique Frémy, the founder of Quid, insists he will bounce back in time for next Christmas with a 2009 edition, produced by another publisher. He says he has been swamped by letters – no emails, obviously – from die-hard lovers of printed information complaining about the cancellation of the 2008 edition.
Other French publishers of large reference books say, however, that the demise of Quid is a warning sign that the internet is destroying reliable sources of knowledge and scholarship. Denis Fasse of Encyclopædia Universalis says that the public should learn there is a difference between free information and reliable information, "between a picnic and a three-star restaurant".
Quid was founded by Dominique Frémy in 1963. Each year since then it has been edited, updated – and largely written – by himself, his wife Michele and his son Fabrice. The book's Bible-thin pages have become the standard one-volume, French-language reference work for important, and trivial, facts.
If you want to know why an Austrian postman never wears a moustache or what the population of Finland was in 1850 or how many days in the life of an average Western woman is spent on ironing, Quid will tell you. (For answers see below.)
The 2007 edition – which may or may not be the last – had 2,500,000 facts on 650 topics in 120 chapters and 2,176 pages, all for €32 (£24).
The book's slogan is tout sur tout, tout de suite – everything on everything immediately. Unfortunately, that is, or it is assumed to be, a better description of the joys of surfing the internet.
M. Frémy criticises Wikipedia for boasting that it is produced by unknown internet contributers, rather than experts. Each edition of Quid drew on 12,000 specialists. "Wikipedia got it wrong from the start by allowing anyone to change its articles," he said. "I am sure that people will go back to more structured kinds of encyclopaedias."
In the meantime, M. Frémy is suing Robert Laffont for alleged breach of contract and talking to other publishers.
He and Fabrice have also accepted that the future is, in part at least, not made of ink and paper. The internet version of Quid, Quid.fr, has been opened to all-comers.
Answers: Moustaches are banned to avoid confusion with military officers. There were 1,400,000 Finns in 1850. Ironing consumes 100 days of every life.