Those Were the Books

That’s it, the world is truly coming to an end. Encyclopaedia Britannica is going online only, after 244 years of print publication. A sadness comes over me, as when I see a book, any paper book, tossed into the maw of the Internet.

We didn’t have Britannica in our house when I was growing up. It was a bit highbrow for our family. You could spot it at the library, deep in the mysterious corners of the place, but somehow it seemed inaccessible, far too brainy and impossible to approach, read and absorb. You could run your hands along the dark volumes and feel the bindings. There was knowledge in there.

In our home we had World Book, which is still around in the actual real publishing world. I don’t recall exactly when it showed up, or how, but I think a man wearing a hat appeared at our doorstep in Texas in the 1960s offering them for sale. Deeply concerned about our education, Mom figured out how to pay for the books out of her meager piano-lesson earnings. Thank you.

They were great volumes. Ivory white, slick pages, colorful, full of things that could take you from here to there and back again. My sister and I competed reading each lettered volume, but she gave up first and I kept going. I had grandiose ideas of reading the whole set straight through, and even made a timeline. This failed, of course, but I can remember, sometime along in there when things were getting wild in Vietnam, how I’d made it deep into the H’s.

I also seem to remember neat plastic overlays on some topics, sort of proto-multimedia displays. If it concerned the human body — a bizarre, icky, very cool country — then you had the gutted human form first, then an overlay of the organs, then the bones, then the muscles, then the skin, until you had the whole complexity of man before your eyes. “Gross!” my sister would exclaim.

World Book put out a yearly supplement. It was even more exciting sometimes than the main set. You took great pride in the year’s accomplishments. Mercury rockets flung men into orbit. Geminis sent heroes up to practice docking ships. The moon men, well, were out of this world. Every year was a banner year for World Book because it was a banner world back then.

Our humble home would have been a seriously lesser place without those venerable volumes. Always, coming home from school, I would check my room for any disturbances — for that was where the encyclopedias lived. If a single volume was gone, alarms went off. It was usually my sister. But that’s O.K., her room was just right there so I could find the missing tome in seconds. Other times the volumes would mysteriously be in the wrong spot. This was quickly fixed and order was restored.

It was all about order back then. Things were clear, easy to understand and hopeful. A set of creamy white World Books could take you to the outer limits of understanding and back again with mere flicks of their beautiful pages.

They also came in handy when it came time to write punishment essays for talking during algebra. Our teacher, Mr. Tynes, who also doubled as the local TV weatherman, came down hard on us boys for talking in the back. One time my pencil rolled off my desk and I whispered to Billy to give it back, and Mr. Tynes caught me and said, O.K., that’ll be 1,000 words on birds. And he wrote my name the corner of infamy on the blackboard.

That night, out came the World Book to save the day. I don’t remember what I wrote, but there was a lot of copying. A thousand words is a long essay in pen longhand. Due the next morning.

The problem was that if you were caught copying out of the encyclopedia, Mr. Tynes would figure it out. And then make you redo it, and on another subject, like snakes, and he’d add another 1,000 words. It was my lucky day when he failed to discover my cheating, but I will say this: I still think birds are cool and know a thing or two about them.

I don’t know where those World Books got off to after we all left home for institutions of higher education. They may be at my sister’s. I’ll have to ask. And tell her about Britannica.

By Kyle Jarrard, a senior editor at the International Herald Tribune.

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