The Christmas morning when I was eight years old, my younger brother and I got up before dawn, while our exhausted parents were still asleep, and crept out into the living room. Presents spilled from beneath the tree. We were most captivated by the series of huge boxes addressed to us all, and we’d torn away the paper from the corner of one box before my mother heard us and came to shoo us back to bed.
We went to our rooms, and I tried to sleep, but I remember savoring the glimpse I’d had of what was in that big box: books. Many, many books. For me, it was blissful to consider. From the time I was small I’d loved stories, books, and language, and I couldn’t imagine then–or now–a better gift than big boxes full of books.
When morning finally came, we discovered that the boxes contained not just ordinary books, but a whole set of encyclopedias. Compton’s Encyclopedia, in fact, which was an arm of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The bindings were cream colored, with a wide maroon stripe across the front, and black letters labeling the spines.
At first it was a little disappointing, because they all looked the same. Yet on that morning and over the years that followed, I spent many hours exploring the pages of those books, which were not the same at all. Under “Anatomy” for instance there were pages of transparencies, each one illustrating a different aspect of the human body–one for the skelaton, another for the circulatory system, another for muscles. It was fascinating. And each letter of the alphabet had a history, as well, tracing the shape of each letter as it evolved through time, and discussing how it appeared in different ancient texts.
The best part about the encyclopedias was that most of what I learned I found by happenstance. I might go to look up a subject for a school paper, but soon I was flipping through the pages and stumbling on things I would never have discovered otherwise. According to my Oxford English Dictionary, which I have in the many-volumned hard-cover set, the word ‘encyclopedia’ means ‘circle of learning’, the circle of arts and sciences that the Greeks considered essential to a liberal arts education.
I love that idea–a circle of learning, endless and complete, at once.
Yesterday the Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it will cease to publish hard copies of its books. It makes sense, I know–I didn’t buy encyclopedias for my own children, who have grown up with the internet. The world is changing, and we are in the midst of a change as powerful as the introduction of the Gutenberg Press in 1450. There are pleasures and advantages in the online world, power in the instant access to texts and information. Yet I still love books, the feel of them in my hands, tangible evidence of richly imagined worlds. I love browsing in bookstores and libraries, and the anticipation of discovery each time I open the cover of a book.
And I treasure that memory of my childhood self, tearing off the wrapping paper to find a whole set of encyclopedias, A-Z, which would take me to places I never imagined could exist.