Friday, March 22, 2019

The Book of Knowledge


In its twenty volumes, an immense amount of information is crammed. It was intended for children 6 to 16, but I doubt that even 16-year-olds could handle it back in 1951, certainly not now. It was the strangest mixture: Mary Had a Little Lamb would be right next to a long article about English portrait painting during the Restoration, and pages of unclear black and white photos of cathedrals. This set of books struck me, a writer, as a really bad idea from the start, but somehow The Book of Knowledge persisted for at least 40 years. There were pages and pages of “birthday congratulations” for the encyclopedia on its fortieth printing, even one from Bing Crosby, who carefully avoided saying whether he had ever actually read anything from earlier editions of the book when he was a kid.

But I actually enjoyed looking through The Book of Knowledge recently. I do not have television or internet in my second house, where I was confined to recover from the antibiotic-resistant infection of which I wrote earlier. To me, looking through these books was a fascinating glimpse into the past: How to send a telegram, how telephones (the old black bakelite ones) worked, how card catalogs worked in libraries, how sorting machines were used on census cards, how motor cars are made. “Could we ever travel to the moon?” Fun with your typewriter! (You can make faces on typing paper with it.) Wax cylinders for temporary recordings from which secretaries could transcribe letters!

The Book of Knowledge was extremely American-oriented. Under “The Distribution of Wealth,” the entire discussion was about capitalism, which also dominated “How Wealth is Created.” At the same time, one passage said that the assumption upon which taxation is built is equality of sacrifice of both rich and poor. God, where did that idea disappear to? We need it back.

Despite the American bias, The Book of Knowledge presented all the parts of the world equally and, by mid-century standards, without judgment. All religions were treated equally. Women of every race were beautiful, men handsome, and every culture had its own brilliant literature and music. The encyclopedia did not talk about the early civil rights struggles; instead, it included a big section about outstanding American “Negroes,” which was the honorable term at the time, leaving the reader to conclude that black people deserved far better than what they were getting.

And the books told kids how to do some things that were, at least at the time, important, such as how to do first aid, how to knit, how to make a whistle, how to make a violin from a cigar box, how to make a princess petticoat for your doll, how to cook.

There were classic stories, everything from Guy de Maupassant’s The Diamond Necklace to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. They were always nourishing and uplifting even if, like Maupassant’s story, the ending was a little tragic.

But there was something in this set of books that is often missing in modern education: a sense of wonder. Over thousands of pages, the book asked questions about things that kids had seen many times but never thought about. The wonder of a piece of silk! Does a plant go to sleep? Why is it good to boil potatoes in their jackets? How do chemical bonds form? (Smiling atoms looked at each other and said, “Got any room for a lonely electron?”) How do plants move and feel? And the life of a tree: “How thrilling would be the story of trees if only they could speak!” This sense of wonder was the best thing about this set of books.

The strangest part was how the books were organized. They weren’t. One topic was smooshed against another at random. As a result, each volume had to have an outline at the beginning to classify the topics and tell which page they were on, and Volume 20 was an index. Very confusing. No wonder that the New Book of Knowledge, which replaced this old one, is alphabetical like every other encyclopedia.

On the other hand, all of knowledge is interconnected. That is the way the world is: each bit of knowledge is mixed in with other bits. The kids were expected to just read through the Book of Knowledge and have their knowledge enhanced in every way at the same time, a carnival of sensations. I wonder if it might not be time to go back to this sort of non-arrangement. If such a set of books was online, then you could search for any topic you might want by pressing Control F. I hesitate to admit that this old Book of Knowledge was organized somewhat the way my brain works! As a matter of fact, when I was a kid, I used to imagine that I would lead a big research institute in which all knowledge would be encapsulated. I started a list of topics, in which birds had equal standing with bubbles. I imagined that I would complete the work and die happy at age 103. I soon recognized that it was impossible to gather all knowledge into one place.

But I will never lose my passion for the interconnectedness of all knowledge.

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