The Whole Range of Human Knowledge

Books Bygone: The Whole Range of Human Knowledge
Marica Bernstein

Imagine a blustery day in March. The threat of tornadoes has passed but the power was knocked out. The nice folks at Natchez Trace Power Association can’t honestly tell when the lights will come back on. Not to worry. The generator is humming loudly in the background; the contents of fridge and deep freeze are safe. Your family has just enjoyed a lovely meal cooked over the grill and is now gathered around the kitchen table engaged in 30 minutes of daily reading by flash-light. All of a sudden someone shouts out, “What does the Magna Carter actually say?” Everyone grabs his or her fully charged iThingy and… within a split second there are groans so loud you can’t even hear the generator. Satellite is down. No internet. No Twitter or facebook. OMG! No Wikipedia! How are you going to find out what the Magna Carta actually says? A calm voice is heard above the anguished cries, “Oh for Heaven’s sake. Just go get the encyclopedia.” What’s that you say? You don’t have a set of encyclopedias on your shelf? Well then, I guess you’ll just sit there in the dark wondering what the Magna Carta actually says.

In addition to its obvious utility when the power is out and the satellite is down, a set of encyclopedias containing the whole range of human knowledge is still—even in this day and age—something every home should have. Online references are convenient; who doesn’t love dictionary dot com? But they are not infallible—no encyclopedia is. There are disadvantages to complete reliance on an old set of encyclopedias. Information can be out of date. History may have been reinterpreted. But if you, as I, like to investigate a topic, these disadvantages can be useful. For example, in composing this little essay, I read up a bit on the Magna Carta—the great charter– in four sets of encyclopedias. Fascinating!

Beyond its usefulness as a reference, though, there is nothing quite so enjoyable, at least to me, as pulling a random encyclopedia volume from the shelf, opening it up somewhere, and turning it page by page. (The dogs frequently join me on the floor.) A distinct advantage of a print encyclopedia is the many illustrations and photographs. The out of date photos are a true delight. The graphs are of the first order with respect to their completeness.
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Filed under Reference, Western culture

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