Remembering the Family Encyclopedia
A nostalgic look at a defunct part of American cultural life.
I was recently cleaning out my Grandma’s house, and I came upon a very old and somewhat battered set of World Book encyclopedias. I’d known they were there — they were a staple of my Grandma’s house for as long as I could remember — but seeing them somehow brought back all of the many times that I’d seen her consult them whenever she wanted to know more about something that had been mentioned in the news or something that she’d seen on a television show.
They were located in what she called her “good” living room. It was a smallish room, with a hifi in one corner, a set of built-in bookshelves, a piano, a couch and chair, and delightfully ugly white shag carpet. I suspect that it was her little sanctum in her rambling country farmhouse, a small touch of class in an otherwise rustic environment. The encyclopedias occupied pride of place on that built-in bookshelf, with two horse-head shaped bookends on either side. For me, they were always a key part of my visits to see her. For her, I think, they were her ticket to a wide world that she would probably never see for herself, a place of knowledge and wonder and delight.
As I flipped through those old books, I found myself carried back to my childhood, when I would also spend hours poring over those pages, immersing myself in the colorful and exciting worlds of history and animals, of places that I’d never been but wanted to know about. Even though by the time I was growing up they were no doubt hopelessly out of date, I still loved them, and I turned to them again and again, even as I grew older. Soon, my initial love of them was overlaid by nostalgia. In the world of Wikipedia, they now seem like a quaint vestige of a vanished world.
Going through those books caused me to reflect on just how foundational the encyclopedia was to my own maturation as a scholar and even to my identity as a queer person. What’s more, I found myself waxing nostalgic about a time when the encyclopedia was considered a key part of any American household, a sign that a particular family had committed to a certain basic literacy, a foundational embrace of knowledge. I sometimes wonder if those days have gone forever and, if so, what we have lost.
Growing up, I was absolutely obsessed with encyclopedias. Any time that I went to someone’s home, the first thing I would look for would be the set of encyclopedias. I was especially excited when someone had a set that I hadn’t seen before, and I always looked forward to going to my aunts’ house so that I could browse through their sets of Encyclopædia Brittanica and Funk and Wagnalls. It soon became apparent to me that there was, in fact, a hierarchy of encyclopedias, that not all of them were created equal. Encyclopedia Brittanica seemed to be the gold standard (both in terms of content and in the magisterial nature of their appearance), though I often found World Book to be more accessible. Funk and Wagnalls, in my opinion of the time, left much to be desired.
It’s hard to explain why exactly I found myself so drawn to encyclopedias in particular. Part of it was certainly the physicality of them: the smooth, glossy pages that were so easy to turn; the heady smell of ink; the heft of a volume as it sat in your hands or rested on a tabletop. All of this combined to create a particular reading experience that was unique.
When, during the late 1990s, it became common for encyclopedias to be released on CD, I became even more enraptured. I soon had my own copies of Grolier’s, Compton’s, and Encarta. Every time that I saw that a new edition of one of these had been released, I would insist that my parents buy it for me. Sure, it was probably a gimmick, but I loved the way that each new edition had some new set of features that made knowledge even more accessible and, if I’m being honest, I also liked the way that the cases looked on my bookshelf.
Strange as it may sound to some, encyclopedias were also a key part of my sexual awakening. As a queer kid growing up in Appalachia in the late 90s and early 00s, there weren’t a great many places I could go that provided important information about human sexuality. That’s where encyclopedias came in. In these volumes, I could find a frank discussion of the nature of human sexual behavior, a means of making sense of the desires that were becoming an ever-stronger part of my identity. Sometimes, my browsing was purely prurient, but even then it was a key part of my sexual awakening.
Obviously, since many of these volumes were quite old — sometimes even from the 1960s — there were subjects that were considered off-limits. I remember being distinctly disappointed that the aforementioned volumes of my grandma’s World Book didn’t include really any discussion of sexuality; even the human reproductive system was excluded from the inset on human anatomy. And as for homosexuality? It wasn’t to be found anywhere. It says a lot about the world in which this encyclopedia was printed that even the mention of homosexuality was deemed unacceptable for inclusion in what is still considered a fundamental arbiter of knowledge, as if keeping it from the encyclopedia was a means of keeping it from the American family.
It was kind of a revelation when I looked through my aunt’s Encyclopedia Britannica and saw an explicit discussion of homosexuality. Again, there were some rather suspicious (and, in hindsight, outright false) claims about the nature of homosexuality, but it was strangely exciting to see a discussion of people like me, people who felt desire for other men. Here, at last, I began to learn a bit more about the world of homosexuality that existed beyond my little isolated Appalachian life. Of course, I had to peruse this where no one else could see, for even though I don’t recall feeling any particular shame about my queer identity, I knew that most of my family definitely wouldn’t approve of me looking up such taboo subjects in the encyclopedia.
I distinctly remember buying a small encyclopedia from a Waldenbooks (another blast from the past) and surreptitiously looking up an entry on homosexuality while riding in the back of the car. By this point in my adolescence, I’d already come to terms with the fact that I was attracted to men, but I was still trying to wrap my heard around what it meant to have those feelings. When I came to the entry on homosexuality, I read that it was very common for young people to go through a homosexual stage in their youth and, for some reason, this made me feel very validated. Of course, it ended up not being a stage at all, but I do think that that little entry in a pocket encyclopedia played a key role in helping me obtain a measure of peace about the fact that I was a gay person and that being so was normal.
For me, then, the encyclopedia was a fundamental part of who I was and who I became. Without its presence in my life, I have to wonder if I would have become quite the nerd that I am, or whether I would have had more issues accepting my queer identity and desires.
These days, it’s easy to forget what a foundational part of everyday American life the encyclopedia was. As with the television — which, as Lynn Spigel writes, was a key part of the architecture of the home in the postwar world — the encyclopedia was a focal point of so many living rooms. Having those volumes on display — usually in some kind of nice case — was a way of saying that you prized a certain basic set of facts, one that was shared with numerous other people who also had their own set of encyclopedias in their own living rooms.
Nowadays, of course, encyclopedias have mostly moved almost exclusively online. In fact, I literally can’t remember the last time that I saw a set of encyclopedias sitting on a shelf in someone’s home, and though I haven’t been to an elementary or high school classroom in years, I suspect that the same is true there as well. Everyone goes to Wikipedia when they need to look something up if, in fact, they feel the need to look something up at all (rather than just assuming that they know something when they don’t).
There are, of course, many good things about the increasing access to knowledge that sites like Wikipedia provide to the masses. It’s quite liberating to have such a vast amount of information at your fingertips, a mere click away. It’s admittedly quite exciting to see a database like Wikipedia expand exponentially, keeping pace in real time with the events and happenings that shape our world. At the same time, it’s also rather frightening just how easily bias can creep into Wikipedia and other decentralized knowledge databases, precisely because there are no set authorities and institutions responsible for gatekeeping (even if, as has been documented, Wikipedia does tend to be more accurate than one might expect).
Furthermore, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve lost something with this new knowledge economy. I don’t mean just the physical aspect of it, though I do miss the feelings associated with holding an actual encyclopedia in my hand and going through its pages. It seems like we have also lost something a bit more intangible. It just seems that with the decline of the encyclopedia, as well as so many other aspects of our once-shared cultural life, we’ve also lost a sense of collective facts. Sometimes, it appears that we can just retreat to our own facts whenever its convenient. While this might make us feel good in the moment, I don’t think it’s healthy for the proper functioning of our society.
Perhaps, one day, the pendulum will swing back and the encyclopedia will once more become a key part of American domestic and cultural life. Until then, I will look back with fondness at this slowly-vanishing institution.