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On Encyclopedias

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at encyclopedias.

I’ve been reading a small pamphlet that has been afflicted with the singularly uninviting title of ‘Purchasing and Encyclopedia: 12 Points to Consider’, but, to be honest, I am not really considering any of them, nor am I purchasing an encyclopedia. Nor am I reading the pamphlet because the prose sparkles in any particular manner, although it does communicate its points in a straightforward (if slightly histrionic) fashion.

I’ve been reading the pamphlet because I am curious why people still buy these mammoth creatures. The copy of ‘Purchasing an Encyclopedia’ I have is from 1995, and one of the things about it that is most striking is how out of date it already is. It was written six years or so before Wikipedia will arrive and prompt much teeth-gnashing, but in the meanwhile the American Library Association got warmed up for this task by waving its arms and warning of the dangers of other intellectual blackguards, such as The Global Encyclopedia and The Free Internet Encyclopedia (neither of which has a page in Wikipedia).

My pamphlet goes over its titular twelve points, and they all look like good sound points to consider when potentially making such a large purchase as this. But there is something about them that nags at the edge of my memory, feeling unduly familiar. And then I realize that they bear a marked resemblance to the 1934 Salesman’s copy of the World Book Encyclopedia that I picked up a month or two ago. When I go check that book, written sixty-odd years earlier, I find that it has listed on its front page eleven points to bear in mind when purchasing an encyclopedia.

Is that truly all we’ve gained encyclopedically in six decades – one measly additional point to consider? The information contained in the books is markedly improved (I know this because the World Book sample I have from 1934 has a picture of a crafty looking fellow stalking a dinosaur); shouldn’t the sales pitch has improved as well, or at least changed? It seems to me that if the encyclopedists are worried about losing customers to the free online reference works they should get their acts together and come up with a snappier approach.

Although I might fault its format, I should admit that I did learn some from ‘Purchasing an Encyclopedia’: that if I choose to have a salesman come to my home and allow him to convince me that my life will be immeasurably enriched through the purchase of an enormous set of these books I will still have three days (courtesy of the machinations of the Federal Trade Commission) during which I can change my mind and nullify the purchase. This seems like a handy enough law, but I have a strong feeling that if it applied to all the other books I’ve bought over the years I would have taken advantage of it and ended up in a sad state of affairs, wealthier in the bank and poorer in books.

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