On Dec. 1, 2021, an article I wrote about the “Childcraft” books appeared in The Epoch Times. Several days later, a reader notified me that his grandfather and his father had both worked in executive positions for World Book, which published the “Childcraft” set as well as the World Book Encyclopedia.
His kind note brought back many pleasurable memories of that encyclopedia. My parents purchased a set for our family when I was around 11 years old. And for the rest of the years I remained at home, I often spent time on the sofa in the living room, browsing the pages, skipping from the Egyptians—I can still recollect the illustrations of their dress—to Napoleon, to whatever other topic struck my fancy. Yes, those volumes were educational and certainly helped with high school research projects, but mostly I read them for the sheer fun of it.
After hearing from my World Book reader, I investigated the two libraries in my town and found that these massive storehouses of knowledge—World Book, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and other such sets—have gone the way of the dinosaurs. In my public library, for example, the computer lists page after page of “encyclopedias,” but these are one-volume compilations generally aimed at a single topic: space exploration for younger readers, woodworking, and even an ebook encyclopedia on embalming. Those large sets so familiar to me in my boyhood have vanished, gone the way of the pterodactyl and the stegosaurus.
This disappearance of print encyclopedias and other reference material, especially anthologies, caused me to wonder: Are we losing something valuable in this exchange of paper and ink for electronics?
The internet has put the world at our fingertips, and I would be the first to agree that this is a good thing. If I wish to find a synonym for “observation,” I hit a few keys, and a dozen sites offer me help. If I wish to find a passage from Anne Morrow Lindbergh or Henry David Thoreau, I type in my search words and begin my investigation. If I wish to find a quote about encyclopedias, I enter the word and up pops a boatload of citations.
Surely, most of us would consider our electronic connection to this massive library of information an enormous gift. We can search for whatever we want—the poetry of Rupert Brooke, the causes of the American Civil War, the best way to cook a quiche Lorraine—and within seconds our quest is over.
But are we missing something?
As I write these words, at my elbow are sitting “The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia,” published in 1983, and two anthologies, “A Treasury of the Familiar” and “Treasures of Love & Inspiration.” The first volume clocks in at 943 pages; the anthologies are slightly slimmer. Stacked one on top of the other, they stand over five inches tall. As I contemplate this tiny mountain of print, the line from a Mark Twain novel comes to mind: “There’s gold in them thar hills.”
About three months ago or so, I purchased the Columbia volume from the small used bookstore in my public library. This cut-and-dried encyclopedia may not bring the pleasures of the World Book of my youth, but it’s still magical to open the book to any page and find a squadron of familiar and unfamiliar topics.
For example, I just now randomly opened the book to a page headed “Foster, Stephen Collins.” This 19th-century songwriter was familiar to me as the creator of “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races,” and I know where Fort Knox and Fort Worth are. But I’d never heard of the Italian writer Ugo Foscolo or the American composer Lukas Foss. I was also surprised to find how so many American cities were named after forts.
Had I simply entered “Stephen Foster” into my computer, that predetermined search would have caused me to miss these adventures.
A Collection of Gemstones
In my home library, much diminished over the last 15 years by various moves from one apartment or house to another, are several anthologies. One particularly treasured compilation is “A Treasury of the Familiar,” poems and prose excerpts originally assembled and edited by Ralph L. Woods. My old, worn 1945 copy of the book bears this penned inscription in the front: “Randy has enjoyed browsing thru this from time to time and we thought you might too. Love, Ellen.”
Well, I’ve enjoyed browsing through it too. Many of the selections included in these pages truly are familiar: Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride,” passages from Scripture, and Scott’s “Lochinvar.” Reading these and the other authors Woods assembles is like attending a reunion with old friends.
Were I to be banished to some island, “A Treasury of the Familiar” is one book I’d definitely want to pack in my bag.
In his Foreword to “Treasury,” author and mid-20th century media personality John Kiernan explains how Woods, an inveterate reader from childhood, filled scrapbook after scrapbook with excerpts from literature he loved and then organized those pieces into his book. Kiernan ends his remarks with praise that always brings me a smile: “A final warning. When not in use, this volume should be kept in a cool dry place, well away from draperies, loose papers, and other inflammable material. It is apparent that the contents are an exciting mixture, possibly explosive.”
Beauties More Rare
“Treasures of Love & Inspiration,” the anthology compiled by Marjorie Barrows over 70 years ago, offers fewer familiar passages and authors, which makes it equally interesting and valuable in its own right. Works by Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Edna St. Vincent Millay all appear here, but also taking a bow are writers unknown to most of us, making this book a gold mine of inspirational ideas for the would-be songwriter or poet. Here are works we might discover online only by the accidents of chance and circumstance, or for that matter, might not find at all.
An example is a paragraph taken from Mary Beth Jorgensen’s brief essay “American Hero” about the nameless soldier buried in Arlington Cemetery who is “known but to God:”
“He is a symbol of heroic qualities, of the vision of Washington, of the humanity of Lincoln, of the courage of MacArthur, of the faith of Rickenbacker, of the sacrifice of Kelly. He is, moreover, a symbol of the common man who dies daily in order that freedom may not perish from the earth.”
Then there’s the beauty of this short poem, “Symbol,” by David Morton:
My faith is all a doubtful thing,
Wove on a doubtful loom,—
Until there comes, each showery spring,
A cherry tree in bloom;
And Christ who died upon a tree
That death had stricken bare,
Comes beautifully back to me,
In blossoms, everywhere.
The Jorgensen piece is nowhere online, at least that I can detect, and though Morton’s poem appears on several sites, I doubt I would have ever stumbled across it outside of the Barrows collection.
In addition to such adventures in browsing, these collections, particularly the encyclopedias, provided readers another service often missing in online references: accuracy. The men and women who wrote articles for encyclopedias were experts in their fields, and their work was peer-reviewed for accuracy.
Moreover, the editors of such reference works were interested in appealing to a broad audience. That desire surely reduced any inclination to taint the material with one’s political beliefs.
On the other hand, when we look up information online, we must check and double-check much of what we find for accuracy. An example: Whenever I seek out a quotation for an article, I have learned to verify its authenticity. All too often I find the quote falsely constructed or attributed to the wrong author.
A Fond Farewell
Today, World Book offers the only new hard copy encyclopedia still available to buyers. Online reviews of the 2020 edition are overwhelmingly positive, tempting me to reach for my wallet and order a set for some of my grandchildren. We’ll see.
Nearly a decade ago, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which had existed in print for 244 years, went to a totally digital format. Britannica’s website offers lots of articles and videos, but it left me a little cold. Too many memories, I guess, of shuffling pages and finding surprises.
Though I lament the passing of the encyclopedia in print form and the demise of certain anthologies I consider valuable, I get it. The price for the 2022 World Book Encyclopedia is $999. Books like “A Treasury of the Familiar” are perhaps out-of-fashion these days, with their emphasis on virtue and the beauty of language.
So, I understand. Technology and market forces come into play, and we change the way we do things. That word “change,” by the way, is derived from the Latin “cambiare,” meaning to exchange or barter, and in this case we have exchanged the old for the new.
As the old Arabic saying goes of change, “The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.”
OK. I’m done barking.