Monday, October 03, 2011

Encyclopedia You

Comments from you guys in response to the encyclopedia post last week.

From Kevin Gaughan:
Sometime in the late 1960's my father decided to invest in a set of Collier's Encyclopaedia's. I think he paid for them in installments. Growing up in the 1970's I spent hours and hours trawling through those hefty volumes (24 volumes, all in all, in black with red and gold trim). A particular treat was a 10 volume junior reading library which came bundled with the encyclopedias that still entertains my own children to this day.

It was actually a pretty good encyclopaedia, although it was written from an American perspective. The information was comprehensive, well written, well illustrated, well laid out and well indexed. There was an annual yearbook with updated articles and reflections on the biggest stories of the year (we only got them for the first few years, but the moon landings of 1969 were exceptionally well covered).

More than anything else I remember the size and weight of the volumes, with each containing a thousand or so pages of densely packed knowledge.

I didn't discover Brittanica until my teens in either the school or local library (I can't recall which). Colliers was not bad, but Brittanica was, as you say, the gold standard. As a geeky kid who spend most of my teens reading about science and technology, I was was bowled over by the authors of Britannica's articles. Collier's articles were written by worthy college professors. Britannica's articles were written by Nobel prize winners.

I made a promise to myself in my penniless teens - some day I would own a full set of encyclopedia Brittanica. The cost seemed astronomical, but I knew it would be worth it.

Years passed and while I occasionally came across second hand sets of Britannica for sale, I determined to hold out for the full experience. The demands of settling down and establishing a home and family meant that there was never enough money left over to fulfill my dream, but I knew it would come to pass eventually.

Of course, all this time computers and the information technology revolution were changing our relationship with knowledge. When Brittanica published a CD version of their opus at a considerable discount on the dead tree version my wife, in a moment of inspiration, saw a means of fulfilling my dream and bought me a set of CDs.

It was Britannica. All of the Nobel Laureates text was faithfully reproduced including many of the diagrams. The Netscape based interface was admittedly pretty awful but functional. All that was missing was the tactile sensation. The touch, the smell the feel. The weight of knowledge.

If I am honest, though, those CD's were hardly ever used. Pretty soon after I got the set Larry Page and Sergey Brin [Google] gave me a way to obtain more information that I could ever use on just about any subject I might be interested in. A few years later Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger [Wikipedia] even managed to re-invent the encyclopedia in a way that I still cannot believe really works, but it does.

I have no idea what I'd do without Google.

Do you remember the era (no, young people, not the 1950s) when monks copied the great books of the world by hand, and all higher knowledge was in the hands of an infinitesimal number of people? Who would ever have imagined, centuries later, that someone would devise a way to entirely flatten those barriers, so that all knowledge is basically shared?

That's not to say we understand much of it, but that's not the point.

Now, an entirely deligthful story from Chris Volny:
I just read your post about encyclopedias and was instantly transported back to the house I grew up in. Complete with the same smell you mentioned, which is still today one of my favorite smells; more on that in a minute. But also I felt the rough shag carpet on my elbows as I lay on my stomach, propped up reading, and the ridge between carpet and tile floor.

Our encyclopedias were on a shelf behind my father's chair, and I would lay for hours on end reading through them. Remember the equivalent of web-surfing? An article would reference some article in another volume of the same set and I'd go grab that volume and flip it open. I would regularly have five or more volumes stacked in front of me.

Today, it amazes me that we were able to ever find anything; I can't even begin to fathom how I would research some obscure or even not so obscure topic without the internet and Google to get me started.

So, about the smell:
My brother and I were table top wargamers; if you don't know, the old strategy games from Avalon Hill, SPI and several others. When you mentioned smell, our very first game was called Tactics II and it had the exact same smell. The other day I pulled out my old copy of it to teach one of my kids how to play it and the scent that came back into my face as I pulled open the lid instantly refreshed every single memory I had about those games and that one in particular. I got this glazed, misty look in my eyes, apparently, because my son asked me if everything was o.k.

"Oh yes, just a huge burst of nostalgia. It's one of those things that's impossible to explain until you have memories that are over thirty years old."

I've often wondered what Eli will think about when he's my age, and what he'll remember. And what he'll tell his sons. Such a long way to go.

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