Tuesday, September 27, 2011


At work today, someone showed me a picture from the 1960s of his family's home.

In the corner of the picture was a bookshelf, and in the bookshelf was a set of encyclopedias.

The image of those encyclopedias sent me into a cinema-style flashback of what life used to be like. It really doesn't feel like I was a child in the 1960s, but I was, and boy, have things changed.

[Spinning up the way back machine--wup wup wup wup whoop whoop whoop whoop wup wup wup wup wup.]

Welcome to 1969.

There's no Internet. Newspapers are a vital source of information. So are libraries.

Most importantly, if you need to answer a question, it's tough. Without online resources, or the local library, what you have available as an information source is what's inside your home.

This is why we needed encyclopedias.

This is also why we needed encyclopedia salesmen, who went door-to-door and tried to convince you to buy a set on the installment plan. See, encyclopedias were so expensive for the average person that ads didn't even mention the price--they just pushed the "book a month" approach, figuring that you would want to make a payment each month so that you wouldn't have any gaps in your set.

Almost everyone I knew had encyclopedias. And there were two tiers (three, actually, with Funk and Wagnalls). World Book was the "standard" encyclopedia. If you really wanted knowledge, though, Encyclopedia Britannica was the gold standard. They had much more information on individual subjects, and the content was written at a higher level.

We had encyclopedias, but I'm not sure which kind. I called my mom today and she didn't remember their name (blue cover, though), but she did tell me a terrific story about how she got them. She started working for a doctor when she was 15, and used the money to buy the encyclopedias because she wanted to further her education.

As an aside, my mom is a very educated badass. In an era where women still weren't encouraged to educate themselves-- hell, they were all but actively discouraged-- my mom was an exception because she was so determined to improve herself.

Here's another aside. The doctor my mom worked for sold a kind of insurance for children, which must have been very progressive for his time. For a monthly fee, if your child got sick, he would treat them.

In an era where most people had no medical insurance, this must have seemed quite revolutionary.

So back to encyclopedias. I have very vivid memories (and so do you, probably, if you're old enough) of afternoons spent thumbing through our encyclopedias. I tried several times to read through our entire set (at least 25 volumes), but I never made it past a few books.

Even today, I assume I still have better knowledge of subjects beginning with the letters "A" through "C".

There are two things I vividly remember about encyclopedias. One was the awesome feeling I had when I opened them. The WHOLE WORLD was in those books. There were articles on almost everything, including thousands of subjects I'd never even heard of before.

What I can particularly never forget, though, is how our encyclopedias smelled. It was a smell that has almost entirely vanished today, a sort of decaying smell of paper that was incredibly distinct and not at all unpleasant.

It was, to my mind, the smell of knowledge.

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