The Lake of Dreams: On Encyclopedias

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.


  1. Debi Holcomb McKinney says

    I just finished reading “The Lake of Dreams” last night and I loved it so much! I don’t know much about my family, so just the thought that Lucy would take the time to “put the pieces together” and find long lost relatives and learn how they came together was so inspiring. So like something I wish I would’ve done years ago. Reading and writing have always been the two great loves of my life. Once again, thank you so much for your book.

    • Thanks, Debi–I’m so glad you enjoyed “The Lake of Dreams.” It was a real pleasure to write it and discover all the pieces along with Lucy. Wishing you lots of joy in reading and writing always.

  2. Carol Gagliardi says

    We had the exact same set of encyclopedias when I was growing up – I remember those anatomical transparencies, I was always fascinated by them! I used to roam the house, forever in search of a new book to delve into, and the encyclopedias became my default reading material when I would get bored with my search.

    I am in the middle of reading The Lake of Dreams right now, and thoroughly enjoying it, so much so that I came online to learn more about you, and the Finger Lakes area. Thank you for crafting such a beautiful story, and sharing it with us.

  3. Anne Reilly says

    I grew up spending summers in a small cottage on the west shore of Cayuga Lake. What a treat to begin The Lake of Dreams and realize where the story is set. We spent many hours skipping stones, paddling a canoe and exploring the lake shore. Thank you for bringing back so many wonderful memories.

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