I suppose it makes sense. The idea of a printed work that summarizes all the world’s meaningful knowledge was always a bit presumptuous, but the speed with which science and technology now make obsolete existing information has hammered a steep Malthusian angle into the learning curve. Too much of any encyclopedic volume now would be out of date too quickly for a print model to work anymore. Besides, all that information is out there on the interwebs for free – not vetted with the care the Britannica people took, and certainly not phrased with the same grace and elegance, but free.
And free trumps all.
It has me thinking about books, though, about their physical nature and how that informs the way we use them. How, in the end, that informed me.
I was raised in a house lousy with books, couldn’t turn around without tripping over one. Even had a library – not a big one, but still, a room the walls of which, save for the windows, were lined with shelves, and those shelves were stuffed with books, lots of them of the reference variety.
We were a World Book family, personally, but the old man sprang for the whole nine yards. We had the encyclopedia, we’d get the updates every year, including the bonus science annual. We had this Time-Life Countries of the World collection – a volume on every nation on earth. OK, I think a few of them were combined, maybe the Baltic states all got crammed into one book, I think Central America got consolidated, but still, that thing took up a whole shelf. When I went a little bonkers on astronomy in middle school, suddenly we had this five-volume series entitled The Heavens.
Dad was a bit of a history nut, so there was plenty of that. Half of a shelf was taken up with a multi-volume Civil War treatise called Lee’s Lieutenants. Jane’s Fighting Ships, always a favorite for a young lad overcome with transitory martial mania. Out on the desk because it was too big for the shelves was the Atlas of Western Civilization. That was the ultimate coffee table book because, if you screwed some legs onto it, it could have been a coffee table. The entire history of the west, from Egypt on, told in beautiful pictures and these kick-ass timeline dioramas that folded out into a yard or more of historical knowledge rendered in exquisite and often bloody detail.
Some of his doctor stuff – I still remember a picture from The US Army Manual of Dermatology, a blackened, diseased scrotum severed from its host held aloft at the corners by a pair of gloved hands. Syphilis. That picture did more to engender a healthy fear of STDs than any moralizing from the religious right ever could, and it did it for a reason that would stick with me. I don’t want to avoid syphilis because Jesus won’t love me anymore – I want to avoid it so my nutsack doesn’t end up as Exhibit A in the revised edition.
Here’s the kernel of parenting genius behind that room, the thing that my dad understood instinctively. Curiosity is infectious. The thirst for knowledge isn’t just a hackneyed cliché, it’s real. The human mind wants to know. If you tell a kid they have to know something, then it’s homework, and the child’s instinct is to rebel against the yoke. But if you larder a room with knowledge and just let it sit there, the scent of it wafting out to hit their budding frontal lobes on some lazy afternoon when they can’t think of anything to do, then they’re going to wander in, pull something off the shelves, start flipping through the pages . . .
And that’s what I’d do. What all of my siblings did. Spent hours in that room, pulling books from the shelves at random, flipping through the pages to no particular end other than to satisfy our curiosities.
My house now is also lousy with books, but fiction mostly, a fair amount of nonfiction, but few of those reference dinosaurs of yore. My kids were raised in a digital age, with their Encartas and Wikipedias and Googles. In need of facts, they step like Captain Kirk into laser-guided transporter beams that deposit them exactly on the topics they seek. No waste, but no wonder. No chance to happen upon peculiar bits of information that beckon from an adjacent page like the hint of a lost temple through the fog of type. Theirs is a sterile city of knowledge, all the streets swept clean, all the cab drivers polite and informed, no chance of wandering into a bad neighborhood where rude data is piled unsorted in the streets and contrary points of view snap at your heels like pit bulls tethered at the end of fraying clotheslines.
And I am thankful for these automated options — when pressed by deadlines and needing just that one final bit to put stop to some project they are like a librarian on Dexedrine. But the map of my own mind is replete with forests grown from the humus of fallen facts, the rotting waste of pointless knowledge not reaped, not sown, but whose purposeless accumulation has laid the imaginative soil from which springs the most odd and wondrous flowers. What, I wonder, will grow from the concrete of minds never dirtied up by need to wander in search through books?