As a boy I read the Weekly Reader, Outdoor Life, Superman comic books, and the Hardy Boys Adventures. Books were not overly abundant and I read whatever I could. Back then the only library in the world was my elementary school’s one-room collection of books organized by the Dewey Decimal System. Remember it? The 200s covered Religion, the 600s Technology, and the 800s covered Literature. We had to memorize all ten classes, and walk on command to a given class where it sat on the shelves. Today we click a mouse and voila! We are transported to anything we want to know.
In the early 1960s, unlike today, we were not drowning in information. Today, no matter what question you have, you can google it and get the answer in less than a second. For instance, I just now decided to see how many birds cats kill a year worldwide. I got the answer, 3.7 billion, in .47 seconds. That’s a fast trip to the library. Not even Superman could make the trip that fast.
In 1961 we had no Google, the uber-fast search engine. I was not without resources, however. My parents bought the 1961 World Book Encyclopedia, a handsome set of books rich with information, photographs, and illustrations. I read the entire set from the first word in the “A” volume to the last word in the “W-X-Y-Z” volume. That set of red, blue, and gold books, marketed as a “family encyclopedia,” was my google. Many homework assignments owe their success to those books of knowledge. On a rainy cold winter day when playing outside wasn’t possible, I would grab a volume and read it from cover to cover.
I cannot recall the day the set arrived but it had to be a day of great excitement. I believe Miss Lulu Goolsby, a spinster, sold Mom and Dad the set. I have no idea how expensive it was but it wasn’t cheap. It literally was an investment in our education. It also provided entertainment. Whenever things got a bit boring I could always get a volume out and read about places I knew I’d never see.
Recently when I was visiting Mom I got the “I” volume off the shelf. I was curious to see what words appeared where “Internet” would be, a word that did not exist in 1961. “Internationale” and “internuncio” neighbored each other. No “Internet,” a word synonymous with revolutionizing almost every aspect of life. Nor would the “W” volume have had a “worldwide web” entry, and so, in a way, our World Book Encyclopedia set is a time capsule, proof only of what existed at that time.
I haven’t used an encyclopedia in years. I google stuff. Google is a great advantage to researchers, writers, and the curious, but for me at least it doesn’t possess the majesty of those old encyclopedia volumes. Hefty, they felt substantial in the hand and a set put considerable weight on a shelf or bookcase. Well made, they withstood the test of time as quality goes, looking almost new. But they’re not new at all. Our set is 43 years old. It came along before President Kennedy was shot, before we put a man on the moon, and before Civil Rights legislation was passed. You won’t find the Beatles in it nor will you see words like Microsoft, iMac, or Google in it.
A book, of course can’t be updated once it’s printed and bound. That meant that each year we had to buy an additional volume with the latest information deemed worthy of inclusion. We did that for a while. Note the white books on the shelf. They’re updates.
World Book Encyclopedia came into existence in 1915 in Chicago and will soon be 100 years old. It has gone through various owners. Today you can buy an online subscription to it, which is how the world works now. Instead of walking over to the bookshelf, you log in with a user name and password.
I guess all the old encyclopedias gather dust now. I hear that collectors will pay $1,000 for old World Book Encyclopedia sets. I see online, however, that they are going for much less than that. Either way it doesn’t matter. What matters are my memories of reading the encyclopedia. It was much like the wish book, the Sears Roebuck catalog, though encyclopedia photographs were black and white unlike the catalog’s bright colors.
World Book … I saw places I wanted to go and things I wanted to do. Then as now, I never lost sight of the fact that a big world is out there. I wanted to learn all about it. If Miss Lulu had sold my parents passports to new and interesting places she could not have done better.
As for me, I love google and use it more than most, but books of all types will always have a special place in my heart. Among the many volumes that dwell there are the old World Books Mom and Dad bought way back in 1961. They were my original Google, an avenue to things vital and exotic. I doubt I’d be a writer today had those volumes not whetted my appetite for reading and learning.
Author’s Note: As if you need this … The word “Google” while the name of a famous search engine, is a play on the number “googol,” a 1 followed by 100 zeros. This term reflects the infinite and ever-increasing volume of information available on the Internet.