Wednesday, 11 August 2010


When I was little, I'd run my fingers across the strange combinations of letters at the back of the spines of my stepfather's heavy, leather-bound, ten-volume encyclopedia: KUUS-MONS, MONT-PYRA. I had just enough strength to lift one off the bookshelf and place it neatly on the living room floor. Each of the volumes seemed like a treasure chest to me, and I took great care to show the books the appreciation they deserved. You see, I used to imagine that the makers of the encyclopedia knew everything; that they had written the information off the top of their heads. They possessed the knowledge, and the knowledge was absolute. I had no idea who the people behind these magnificient books were, and I never even thought that it was all that relevant. All the world's information gathered in one place, now that was relevant.

I'd sit in front of these books for hours on end, reading bits here and there. I'd learn about Greek gods, the countries I hadn't visited, composers, technological innovations, plants and animals. My favourites were the entries with detailed maps, and ones with small black-and-white pictures. I'd study them carefully, and by the time I was about 10 or 11, I'd know that the last name of one of my fellow class-mates meant a type of mammal that shared a common ancestry with swines. I remember feeling bored in biology class because we were taught to recognise common, household birds, and I knew their names in Latin already. I recall astounding my geography teacher by drawing the outlines of the world map, free hand, of course, in about five minutes.

I guess you could say that I was your typical annoying smart kid. I learned to read when I was four years old, without anyone teaching me. I wanted to know about the world, I was greedy for knowledge, and performed extremely well in school. I went around telling people I was going to be an ornitologist when I grew up. My affair with encyclopedias deepened when world history was added to my curriculum. My head was bursting with information, and I felt like I was on the fast lane to become as smart as the makers of the encyclopedias.

Unfortunately, I encountered people in my early teens who thought I was just a major nerd, and that all the knowledge I possessed was embarrasing. A new friend told me that no boy was ever going to be interested in me if I paid more attention to books than my skin. When that friendship went sour, I was bullied at school for almost a year, for nothing else than my desire to be an ornitologist. A group of mean girls would hunt me down in recess: "so, you want to tell us about the birds?" "Come on, nerd, tell us about the birds!" I stopped studying the encyclopedias and decided that I knew enough for the time being. I spent my time behind locked doors in my room, writing about how pissed off I was. I taught myself to navigate the vast oceans of information to get on with things rather than to please myself. I went on to do well in school and in my further studies. I didn't become an ornitologist, though. I don't think I ever quite got over the teenage drama and my tearful break-up with encyclopedias.

I hadn't thought of all this in a long, long time, not before I came across Pictorial Webster's - A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities in a store in Princeton. The book consists of 400 pages of old engravings used in Webster's 19th century dictionaries. I took one glimpse at the book, and in seconds I was transported to the essential feeling I cherished while I was still deeply engaged in my love affair with encyclopedias: Look at all of this information! There is so much information out there! I want it all!

There was no force on this planet that would have stopped me from buying the book. For the past couple of days I have picked up the book dozens of times, and every time it has hit me how much I used to love learning new things. I still do, and knowing that information isn't absolute, and that it is always tied in time, place, language and people, only makes it more interesting now. Having come to terms with the relativity of information and knowledge, my greed for knowing more isn't quite as passionate as it used to be. Children possess such a unique ability to absorb information quickly, and the faith in absolute knowledge sure comes in handy. I doubt I will ever get back to the same level of intensity with learning. I also realise that I have, against my own wishes, acquired quite a bit of the modern wikipedia-d attitude to information - that it is a necessary evil, easily available, and that it doesn't require all that much remembering. I am going to try to educate myself away from that from now on, and enjoy learning and knowing as much as I used to.

These days printed encyclopedias are the toxic waste of books. They are pretty much considered the useless side product of the intellectual process that lead to Google. Next time I visit a second hand bookstore, I know what I'll be looking for.


Modesty is Pretty said...

What a wonderful post, I was not what you would call a smart-intelligent-bright girl, my grades were fairly average but my imagination and fascination with drawing were beyond the average, I was not teassed for being smart or for being a great artist, but my mom thought it was a waste of time to be drawing and writing poems and she constantly nagged me about it, so I quit. I'm still trying to recover as much of who I was, but I could have been better if only I had been encouraged. I have a 10 year old boy who loves to read, as I read what you wrote I thought of him, he was a little late bloomer, learned to read after his bright friends, but scored almost perfect on the state gifted and talented standarized test. Once he learned to read he never put a book down, in fact we just came to the store and he asked if he could have a book. He was the 6th highest point student on Reading books at his school and that's a K-12th grade! He doesn't have many friends though and he gets picked on by his classmates. It's a hard childood I guess, if you are too smart you gets picked on, if you are too slow you get picked on. Childhood is not easy. Thank you for writing this wonderful post!

Formaggio said...

A-Celle, Celli-Gh, Gi-Jyrk, Jyrs-Kuur, Kuus-Mons, Mont-Pyra, Pyre-Soso, Sost-Tsc, Tse-Visc und Vise-Öö Hakemistot!

FashionTheorist said...

My mum has an old Webster's college dictionary with similar line drawings. I used to love coming across them when I perused the dictionary. Yes, I read the dictionary. Maybe not cover-to-cover, like a novel, but in bits and pieces, like a collection of short stories.

I have always had a deep fondness for encyclopediae myself. Because they're organized alphabetically, it's very easy to get to the end of the entry you're reading... and discover some other fascinating topic on the rest of the page. I used to get lost in the encyclopedia.

There is something very compelling and wonderful about all that information gathered together in one place, all those disparate topics rubbing elbows. It's like a really good party in the house of knowledge, the sort where you wind up talking to an utterly fascinating person you'd never have thought to converse with otherwise.

Northmoon said...

How tragic that you were bullied about your love of learning when you were in school, and how wonderful that you can now recover some of that enthusiasm.

The book of engravings looks amazing. I hope you show us more of these pictures.

You are such a unique, fascinating person! Thank you for your blog, I enjoy what you have to say.

Charlotte said...

If you have read the first story in my book, Waves, then you know why I feel such an affinity with your blog. My mother sold encyclopedias for a while when I was a little girl, and those books--which my father would read for fun--were the Important Books in our home. No matter that they were the 1959 edition and as time went on, they were more & more out of date. There was also a heavy atlas that slid into a compartment in the Special Bookshelf that came with the set. I loved poring over those maps. Even now, Libya is yellow, France green. . .

Becky said...

Wonderful post. I was also teased, but mostly for being "weird." I loved book reports as a kid and always wanted to write them. I think at some point we're all shot down for what we love and who we are, and it's a crying shame, because suddenly I look around and I don't really see individuals but we've all pressured ourselves into being like everyone else and it's sad. I love your blog because you're such an individual, and I hope you never quit again. :)

Sheila said...

I have a double volume of encylopedia that is nearly 100 years old - I treasure it. I was recently given an old dictionary (I collect dictionaries, casually) and I've been browsing through it. I'm such a word nerd.

I wanted to be a paleontologist for years when I was a kid (this is long, long before "Jurassic Park") - the kids also used to make fun of me.

I love your story. Thank you - I hope you cherish that book for a long time.