Betsy Hart - There was magic in encyclopedias

Published:

One of my daughters received a loooong awaited iPhone for Christmas. That was around 10 Christmas morning. Before Christmas dinner, I confiscated both her and her older sister's iPhones for a few hours to ensure some family connection time. Still, just before I went to bed Christmas night, I received an email from my cellphone provider that half of her data plan allotment for the month had been used. Half!

Her sense of awe and wonder at her gift was a little like it was ... magic. It's a source of information, connection and wonder. And you know what? It is all those things. So this is no diatribe against kids and smartphones. It is about encyclopedias.

Follow me here. Printed, bound, old-fashioned encyclopedias. Earlier this year, Encyclopedia Britannica announced that after 244 years it would no longer print its volumes, sales of which had dwindled for years. Its focus continues to be online, of course. Also this year, my siblings and I moved my dad out of his condominium and into a terrific elder-care facility and what was one of the treasures from his home that found its place in mine? A beautiful, 21-volume set of the World Book Encyclopedia, this one from 1989. World Book is still publishing its printed version, probably for nostalgia more than anything else.

I was thrilled to get it, not just because my mother sold World Book encyclopedias during the 1980s when the printed versions were going strong even though a new set was many hundreds of dollars. I was thrilled because of what that set of books meant to us as kids. The bound books we grew up with from the 1960s were white and green and I don't remember when we got that set -- it was likely for Christmas -- but I do know how we revered it.

It was a source of information, connection and wonder. Those glossy pages with their gilt edging and their unique smell were filled with ... magic.

As a kid I would spend hours pouring over the knowledge they contained. I especially liked looking at the pictures of the pyramids and the ancient world, but I also remember being fascinated by everything from Helen Keller to minerals.

For me as a child, like for so many of us, the contents were a sure bet for book reports. Of course, we always had to consider how to use the World Book without following it so closely that the teacher could tell it came from World Book.

My favorite part? The "human" entry where one translucent page would fall on top of another, finally filling out the internal organs of the human anatomy. I spent hours on that. To me those volumes were otherworldly. To my parents I imagine they were a sign of having achieved middle-class security.

I don't know what happened to my family's 1960s set. But I think of them fondly when I look at my recently acquired 1989 set. And, I admit, when I see my daughter with her new iPhone. Yes, spending time on Facebook and Instagram is not the same as researching the pyramids, I suppose, though this is a daughter likely to do both and download countless books onto her iPhone along the way. But still, I'm reminded in looking at her, just a bit, of that sense of being lost in those magic, translucent anatomy pages when I was a young person.

Sure, as printed volumes of encyclopedias become a collector's item, like printed maps, typewriters and vinyl records, I find myself a little sad that my children don't know those glorious pages, that amazing smell. They connect to the world in a different way than we did as children. And yet I'm also reminded that we adults too often believe that "magic" has to look the same way for our kids as it did for us. How wonderful that that's just not any truer now than it was when our own parents thought the same thing about their children.

It really is an amazing world.

And somehow, I don't think I'm the first parent to see that or, well, to remind her child of the "magic" of sometimes putting down whatever distracts us from personal relationships, and, oh yeah, free Wi-Fi connections where available.

(Betsy Hart's latest book is From The Hart: A Collection of Favorite Columns on Love, Loss, Marriage (and Other Extreme Sports).)

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.