People of the Book, yes. But which one? Encyclopedia Britannica? World Book?
Jews are often called the “People of the Book,” a reference to our reverence for sacred writings, but in my childhood home, the book we turned to most frequently was the encyclopedia.
In the pre-internet world, encyclopedias were the go-to resource for information. Most households that could afford one owned one.
Pricey Encyclopedia Britannica was king. If your parents — and, by extension, you — were ritzy and a bunch of smarty-pants to boot, you were a Britannica household. If you were middle class, your bookshelf groaned under a more modest brand, the World Book.
Over at our working-class manse, we owned Compton’s Encyclopedia. We were a Compton’s house, because my fourth-grade teacher strong-armed all the class parents into buying that brand, saying it was “the best” and “essential for our academic well-being.” Even then, I sensed a kick-back scam.
And with each purchase came the annual obligation and angst to buy the yearbook update. “Buy NOW!!!”
And buy now my mother dutifully did.
For each grade-school geography and history report, I prayed at the altar of Compton’s. Likewise, for each high-school literature and science report, my brother turned first to Compton’s for guidance and counsel.
The only one who ever voluntarily opened a Compton’s tome was my father. He would — at random — grab one volume, sit down in his beloved worn green armchair, light up a cigar, and start reading from page 1. He had a photographic memory and would absorb anything and everything of interest. Then at the dinner table, he would share his latest nuggets of knowledge with us in a way that was fun and fascinating. I don’t think he quite made it from A to Z of Compton’s, but I know he gave it a run for his money.
When I mentioned my father’s encyclopedia-reading habit to my husband, Jon said that as a child he, too, used to read random volumes of the encyclopedia for pleasure.
His was a World Book house, probably bought by his father on installment from a door-to-door salesman.
Meanwhile, back at our house, my mother was a devoted fiction reader. Her need for factual content was served by The New York Times and weirdly, for a New York City dweller, the Farmers’ Almanac.
Thus, her relationship to Compton’s was somewhat remote. She turned to it but once a week when rag in hand, she dusted those cream-colored books into pristine shape.
I don’t know when my family parted company with our encyclopedia. We moved multiple times across the country. Was it a question of bulk, or did I, as the youngest child, “intellectually” outgrow Compton’s? I confess I can picture pretentious Seven-Sisters-College-student me saying to my father, “Oh, Daddy, I won’t dream of using the encyclopedia. That’s for children. I use primary source materials for my research.”
My husband and I never bought our children an encyclopedia. Today, thanks — or at least because of — the internet, encyclopedias are passé. Research, even primary source materials, is readily available. This at-your-fingertips easy access to information is great.
But it also makes me sad.
I may have had a love-hate relationship with my family’s Compton’s. Yet we were a family united by that set of books. I miss that time. I especially miss the sight of my father sitting in his chair reading and regaling us with information, useful and miscellaneous.
You can read more of Karen’s work at Muddling through Middle Age or contact her at karen@muddling. me.