My wife and I were staring at our bookcase the other day. We used to refer to it as an entertainment center, but the cassette player broke, so now we’re just calling it like it is.
The shelves needed a little rearranging, so I suggested we bring up a few knick-knacks from the basement and get rid of that old set of “World Book Encyclopedias.” “Why do we need it?” I asked Mary Ellen. “We have our smart phones, a Kindle and a computer.” That’s what I said, but the truth is those books hold some great memories and we still occasionally go to them for quick info, as long as we’re researching something that happened before 1989.
In my fourth-grade classroom I saw my first shelf full of those magical books. I was so intrigued with the idea that all this information could be packed into one place that I snuck the “A” book home to read over the weekend. This was quite the feat, far more difficult than hiding the slim XYZ volume under my jacket.
That Friday night I read the first entry, and to this day I know a lot more about aardvarks than is really necessary, such as that the scientific name for the group that animal comes from is Tubulidentata. I skipped right to the last entry because I always like to know how books end. I learned about ancient Aztec ruins. This has remained a problem for the past 50 years because at cocktail parties when the conversation turns to aardvarks or the Aztecs, I confuse Tubulidentata with the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. How embarrassing is that?
The last volume in the set is the “Research and Study Guide.” Let’s say you need information on Thomas Jefferson. The guide says you’ll find his listing in Volume J. This is beneficial for anyone who would have started to search by first name. The “World Book” puts the number of the volume on the book’s spine, so C is also labeled with a 3 — a help when shelving the books if you don’t know the alphabet but can count. Good spellers bought the “Encyclopedia Britannica.”
By the way, the aardvark article in our 1989 edition hadn’t changed since when I was in elementary school. I believe it could be improved by adding a “New Yorker”-like cartoon, maybe two aardvarks sitting in a park on a blanket laden with picnic food. Then one anteater says to the other, “Now, we just wait.”
Every item in the “World Book” is followed by the writer/researcher’s name. The aardvark entry, for example, was written by Dr. Anne Dagg, who, Google tells me, is still a zoologist at the University of Waterloo. But the aardwolf article that follows was written by Frank Golley, a real estate agent in Georgia. When it got down to the publishing deadline, “World Book” couldn’t find a real expert, so they just picked a guy who had one as a pet.
My only other gripe with my beloved “World Book” is how it begins the Indiana section: “Indiana is a small state … it covers the smallest area of any state in the Midwest … no other state west of the Appalachian Mountains is smaller.”
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “Indiana is the 38th largest by area and the 16th most populous of the 50 United States.”
Wikipedia makes Indiana sound much more appealing. I say this as the second smartest person in my marriage.