Jews are often called “the People of the Book,” a reference to our reverence for sacred writings, but in my non-observant childhood home, the book we turned to most frequently was the encyclopedia.
In my pre-Internet world, Encyclopedia Britannica was king. If your parents – and by extension, you – were really ritzy and a bunch of smarty-pants to boot, you were a Britannica household. If you were middle class, your bookshelf groaned under a more modest brand, the World Book.
Over at our working-class manse, we owned Compton’s Encyclopedia. We were a Compton’s house because my fourth-grade teacher strong-armed all the class parents into buying Compton’s, saying it was “the best” and “essential for our academic well-being.” Even then, I sensed a kick-back scam.
And with each purchase came the annual obligation and angst to buy the update yearbook. “Buy NOW!!!” AND buy now my mother dutifully did.
For each grade-school geography and history report, I dutifully first knelt and prayed at the altar of Compton’s. So too, for each high-school literature and science report, my brother turned first to the encyclopedia for guidance and counsel.
The only one who willingly and happily ever opened a Compton’s tome was my father. He would – at random – grab one, sit down in his beloved worn green armchair, light up a cigar, and start reading from page 1. He had a photographic memory and would absorb anything and everything of interest. Then at the dinner table, he would share it with us in a way that was fun and fascinating. I don’t think he literally made it from A to Z of Compton’s, but I know he gave it a run for his money.
When I mentioned my father’s encyclopedia reading habit to my husband, Jon said as a child he too used to read volumes of the encyclopedia for pleasure. His was a World Book house, probably bought by his father on installment from a door-to-door salesman.
Meanwhile back at our house, my mother was a devoted fiction reader. Her need for factual information was served by The New York Times and weirdly, The Farmers’ Almanac. Thus, her relationship to Compton’s was somewhat remote. She turned to it but once a week when entering the family room, rag in hand, she dusted those crème-colored books into pristine shape.
I don’t know when my family parted company with our encyclopedia. We moved multiple times across the country. Was it a question of bulk, or did I, as the youngest child, “intellectually” outgrown Compton’s? I confess I can picture pretentious Seven-Sisters-College-student me saying to my father, “Oh, Daddy, ‘we’ don’t use encyclopedias. They’re for children. I use primary source materials for my research.” This makes me cringe, but I can see it.
Jon and I never bought our children an encyclopedia. Today, thanks to — or at least because of — the Internet, encyclopedias are passé. Research, even primary source materials, is readily available. It’s great. But it also makes me sad. I may have had a love-hate relationship with my family’s Compton’s. Yet, we were a family united by that set of books. I miss that time. I especially miss the sight of my father sitting in his chair reading from a volume and regaling us with information, useful and miscellaneous.