Among the books I found when I cleaned out my bookcase recently was a two-volume set called The Reader’s Encyclopedia. These books had been on my shelf for many years, but they originally belonged to my parents. I remember the volumes from childhood.
When I had nothing better to do on a lazy afternoon, I would take one of the books down from the bookcase and browse through it, looking for something to interest my twelve-or-so-year-old mind. The books purported to summarize all literature around the world, and I could usually find something to engage my imagination. I read about classic English novels, important authors in the U.S. and Great Britain, and literature from the Greek and Roman Empires through To Kill a Mockingbird.
In high school, whenever I had a term paper to write in English, I started my research in The Reader’s Encyclopedia. It might only have a paragraph or two on the book or author I had to write about, but it was usually enough to get me started on a topic for my paper. Then I’d do my detailed research in more focused books on that author that I checked out from the library, but at least I had some direction as I read.
I don’t recall when my mother decided she didn’t want the set any more. I seem to remember acquiring the volumes sometime after my family moved into our current house in 1984. Therefore, it’s likely that she gave me the books in 1986, when my parents moved back to Richland, Washington. That was the year that my youngest sibling graduated from high school—no more need for her to keep a convenient reference set in the house.
Besides, the set was out of date by that time. My mother had the Second Edition, published in 1965, so it was about twenty years past its prime when she gave it to me. A lot of literature got published in those twenty years, though of course, anything written about the Greek and Roman Empires, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and a myriad of other authors and their works would still be valid.
I kept the volumes on my bookcase from whenever I received them until earlier this month. The volumes I gave away were over fifty years old. Half a century out of date. I decided I didn’t need them anymore.
In the thirty or so years that I owned the books, I only referred to them occasionally. About once every three or four years, I might pull down a book, mostly out of nostalgia. Of course, I no longer write English term papers, so I no longer need prompts to develop my themes. I simply didn’t use them.
But the primary reason I gave the books away is that they were no longer the quickest means of finding an answer to a literary question. Now we have the Internet. What were Thomas Hardy’s best-known works? Google it. Which writers were part of the transcendentalist school? Google it. What were the major Greek gods and how did they translate into the Roman gods? Google it. In less time than I could pull The Reader’s Encyclopedia off my shelf, I could type these questions into my computer—or even my cell phone—and have the answer.
So not only were the books outdated, they were old technology. They might still contain useful information, but their information was both incomplete and hard to access. It was not a hard decision to give the set away.
Still, I wonder, if I were twelve again today, what books would I browse that would open my imagination to the world that preceded me? Would I surf the net? But could I do so safely? The Reader’s Encyclopedia might have mentioned pornography, but the two volumes certainly didn’t depict it. Experts had curated what was worth knowing and how it was portrayed. The raw data available on the Internet is overwhelming, and we are never sure what we can trust.
I am awed whenever I think about our ability today to access all the knowledge of the ages through a device we can hold in the palm of a hand. But we have also lost the pleasure of meandering through great works from A through L (or M through Z) while nestled in an easy chair on a summer afternoon.
What books did you browse as a child?