Encyclopedia of old gets no respect, but people still read

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
April 13, 2019 - 6:57am
Image Credit: Mel Rothenburger

ALMOST FIVE YEARS AGO, I began reading my pristine 1968 edition of The American People’s Encyclopedia. I bought it from a door-to-door salesman after I got my first full-time job at a newspaper in Prince George 51 years ago.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, one of those things every journalist needed. It was also a sort of rite of passage towards maturity, right up there with renting an apartment and buying my first car.

When I was a kid, our family had a set of Encyclopedia Canadiana that was my salvation for many a school essay. I think there was a set of encyclopedias in every living room in Canada. Maybe my American People’s made me less homesick.

Those incredibly heavy books in their red bindings were a major investment for a 24-year-old — several hundred dollars paid in monthly installments, but they sure looked good in the living room on shelves made from a few concrete building blocks and one by sixes.

Though I enjoyed looking up obscure topics once in a while over the years, most of the volumes have never been cracked. They remain as crisp and clean and new as they were half a century ago. Nobody uses encyclopedias anymore.

For the last few decades, they’ve been stored in boxes in the basement. In 2014, they surfaced during one of my periodic purging exercises in which you’re supposed to get rid of anything you haven’t used in the past year.

I wasn’t ready to part with my encyclopedia, so I resolved to begin reading them. I skipped Volume 1 and went straight to Volume 2, Annu to Bayonee Decree. I got to page 11, absorbing Ludwig Anzengruber, apocalyptic literature and apormorphine hydrochloride.

That’s as far as I got.

I thought of my encyclopedia again when I dropped off a few boxes of books to Barb’s Used Book Sale this week, and browsed the other offerings. There’s some great stuff there. Fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, coffee table books, best-selling authors, obscure authors.

But nothing by Ludwig Anzengruber (who, it turns out, was an Austrian poet and novelist), and there are no encyclopedias. Nobody wants them. The Barb’s folks don’t even accept them, I’m sure because they’d just end up hauling them to the recycle depot or the dumpster or wherever encyclopedias go to die.

The demise of the encyclopedia is a sad thing, in my opinion. Many a college student and between-jobs bread winner made ends meet by flogging encyclopedias at the doorstep. Their publishers tried to keep up with the times for awhile. First, they put out annual update editions. Waiting for them to arrive at the post office was a little like waiting for the Sears Christmas catalogue.

The Encyclopedia Year Book 1970 and I arrived in Kamloops the same year. It included an introduction by Chet Huntley, who concluded that the previous year had offered hope in a dangerous world. American fatalities in the Vietnam war were down. Man set foot on the moon. “Virtually every government in the Western world” resolved to protect the environment, he wrote. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau met with world leaders.

It wasn’t all good news, of course. The Soviet Union and “Red China” were threatening war with each other. The “silent majority” became a thing. Separatism gained strength in Quebec.

And on it went. Where else could you find the entire history of the world summed up in one place?

Later, publishers began putting their encyclopedias on CDs but CDs are now a thing of the past and you can find out anything you want with a few clicks on the Internet.

Anybody who does still have a set of encyclopedias is trying to sell them on the Internet. (A complete set of the American Peoples Encyclopedia can be had for around $30 plus shipping.)

There’s some irony in the death of the encyclopedia, at a time when the printed book remains the most popular form of reading. Magazines and newspapers are disappearing and many prefer to get their information from Twitter and Facebook, yet the printed book lives on, accounting for more sales than either e-books or audio books.

Libraries have more patrons than ever. More than 70 per cent of adults have read a book in the past year. The average Canadian, in fact, reads between four and 12 books a year. There’s still nothing quite like settling in with a good book on a rainy day, or on the back deck on a sunny weekend afternoon.

But nobody curls up with Volume 12, Louis Philippe to Miocene.

I’m ready to part with my 1972 textbook on Advertising, and I can definitely do without You Can’t Take It With You, The Common-Sense Guide to Estate Planning for Canadians, second edition.

But the American People’s is going to stay in the basement for another day, or another year. You never know when I might need to look up some obscure fact or person.

Sure, Wikipedia has articles on the Bayonee Decree and Ludwig Anzengruber, too, but it’s not the same.

Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops and newspaper editor. He publishes the ArmchairMayor.ca opinion website, and is a director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He can be reached at mrothenburger@armchairmayor.ca.

Editor's Note: This opinion piece reflects the views of its author, and does not necessarily represent the views of CFJC Today or the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group.