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.