Fly Me to the Moon and other Adventures from “Our Wonder World”

Books Bygone: Fly Me to the Moon and other Adventures from “Our Wonder World”
Marica Bernstein

“A certain man had a boy who was an Animated Interrogation Point—one of the kind that can shoot Who? Why? What? When? And Where? at you faster than a rapid-fire gun. That irrepressible inquirer made things so uncomfortable at meal time that at last the father agreed to pay him twenty-five cents for every week in which he did not ask a single question at the breakfast table.” That was written 100 years ago—back when families had breakfast together and it only took a quarter to zip a lip!

“Did you ever feel like doing that?” the Introduction continues, “If so, you and the boy both deserve sympathy.” Stop right there because yes I have. As the mother of three little girls– now question-asking intelligent young women– I appreciate your sympathy. I also whole-heartedly agree with this: “He ought to ask questions, because he wants to know things; and you want him to know them, even if you do not know them yourself—which often happens, and perhaps causes trouble. At the same time, you ought to have a chance at your morning paper… and yet the questions must not be suppressed, because that means death to intelligence and to brain growth.”

No grownup in his or her right mind wants to stifle the growth of children’s brains, and so we look to encyclopedias for intelligent answers for our children and ourselves. And what better encyclopedia than Our Wonder World: A Library of Knowledge in Ten Volumes (1918)? These volumes are beautiful examples of topical encyclopedias. Each volume is devoted to a single, though wide-ranging topic. Volume One concerns The World and Its People and covers the heavens, the sea, earth’s geology, creation myths, assorted Earthling peoples, and much more. This particular set (of which I have only six volumes, but that’s okay, see below) is leather bound, gold gilded, and nearly every page has a beautiful illustration or photograph.

There is indeed a sense of wonder in “Our Wonder World.” A two-page graphic shows an imaginary spacecraft (which looks remarkably like a Klingon Bird of Prey!) flying above a large body of water. In the sky are pictured the sun, moon and planets. Along the sides of the illustration are listed the times it would take to travel to each: to the Sun, 88 years (“start now and you would not get there until after 2000 A.D.”); to the moon, 83 days; to Mars, 46 years (“a man would grow old on the way”); to Neptune, 2571 years (“if we had started six hundred years before Christ, we should be nearing Neptune”). Imagining the wonder of space travel should keep our “irrepressible inquisitor” quiet for a few minutes. If not, we can always give him or her Volume Ten: The Quiz Book in which he may learn what he “ought to know” about civics, what to look for when choosing a good pet, or—and this is particularly timely—“how rain happens to fall in drops.”

While he’s distracted, and you have a chance at your paper, we can talk more generally about what to look for when shopping for a set of topical encyclopedias. As with any old set, don’t spend too much. One on-line book seller has a complete leather-bound gold gilded set of “Our Wonder World” priced at $145. That’s ridiculous. Mine were a gift from my daughter and I can promise you she didn’t spend that kind of money! Unlike alphabetical encyclopedias, if you find a reasonably priced set of topical encyclopedias you admire, do not hesitate to bring it home even if it’s not complete. Your “irrepressible inquirer” won’t know what she’s missing.

Our Wonder World: A Library of Knowledge in Ten Volumes. Howard Benjamin Grose, ed. Geo. L. Shuman & Co., Chicago. 1918. Available to download or read at openlibrary.org; free Nook version at barnesandnoble.com; physical books available at online books sellers.

This essay first appeared in the April 17, 2014 issue of the Webster Progress Times.

BONUS for online readers. The second edition (1918– the one I have) includes a supplementary volume– Volume XI:

Our Wonder World: A Library of Knowledge in Ten Volumes Volume XI Supplementary: The Wonder of Life

If you ever come across it, pick it up. It’s a gold mine.

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Filed under American History, Reference, Texbook, Western culture

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