In this era of Wikipedia, it’s hard to imagine a time when we relied on bulky multi-volume printed encyclopedias to get our information. When I was a kid, my grandparents gave me a set of World Book encyclopedias, and that set got me all the way through high school. Then when I was out of school, I fell prey to a shifty hardselling salesman who conned me into buying an overpriced set of Encyclopædia Britannica.
Except it didn’t happen that way at all. There simply came a time when I missed my World Book, and wanted to update my library, so I called the salesman, not the other way around. He came to my apartment and sold me a handsome set of the 1985 15th edition Encyclopædia Britannica. The covers were padded and beautiful. It felt nice just to hold them, and reading them was even better. Yes, they were expensive, but I didn’t consider them overpriced. Over the years, I more than got my money’s worth out of those books.
Additionally, the encyclopedias came with a perk: a 20-volume set of collected period documents called The Annals of America. This awesome set of hardcover history books covered American history from Christopher Columbus through Gerald Ford. It was prepared in time for the 1976 American Bicentennial. I never made it through the entire set, but I read several of the volumes cover to cover, and bounced around plenty in the remainder. It was a valuable resource and again I more than got my money’s worth.
My last attempt to get through all 20 volumes in chronological order (I’m anal that way) came just after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I was feeling patriotic, and thought there was never a better time to read about American history in depth. I started over at the very beginning. I wasn’t working at the time except for a part-time position, so I had lots of time to read, doing much of it while laying out by the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The historic location only added to my feeling of intense patriotism. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a halt to all air travel. There were armed guards at government buildings. There was an odd feeling in the air. And there I was, getting my suntan and reading these hefty books.
Sadly and stupidly, I somehow got sidetracked and abandoned my project of reading The Annals of America straight through. Even more stupidly, my wife and I moved away from Cambridge, a town we loved, a couple years later. Then money grew tight and I had to sell several possessions which I now wish I had back. Included in that number was my beloved set of Encyclopædia Britannica and also The Annals of America. I hope whoever has them now is getting a lot out of them. I hope they are being read and loved, not gathering dust on a forgotten shelf.