Literary Transgression: Encyclopædias

September 11, 2009 at 12:00 am 2 comments

While this may not be particularly transgressive or literary, it is still a slightly embarrassing confession and confess I shall: I love encyclopedias. I’m not talking about online encyclopedias that are governed by an angry hoard of anal fussbudgets (any and all of these such an encyclopedias shall, of course, out of decency remain nameless). I’m talking about those dying breed of printed and bound encyclopedias updated sporadically and used to briefly and in as unbiased as way as possible define the known world. I love them, both in theory and in practice.

I disocovered this about myself on a recent trip home when I was called upon to define “Armenia” for my grandmother. Not knowing much myself beyond the fact of its existence and that it is a country somewhere near Hungary, I quickly procured our 1961 edition of the Golden Home and High School Encyclopedia in 20 Volumes. As I quickly discovered, it should say “in 20 Volumes of AWESOME!” Here’s what I love about encyclopedias:

1. Brevity is the soul of wit. While there is undeniably something to say for endless pages and books and three-volume novels about any given subject, there is also something completely wonderful about a short paragraph introduction to a topic. Encyclopedias are absolutely great at simply and briefly defining or explaining something. The fact that I now understand how balance works (yes, involving the inner ear) and the difference between physical and cultural anthropology are a testament to the encyclopedia.

2. Breadth of scope. Encyclopedias literally have everything in the entire world contained within their covers. Anything you could want to know about is in there. Things you didn’t even know existed but are undeniably fascinating exist in there. It is an absolutely magical place.

3. Factoids. The two best ways I can think of to become a conversational hit is to read The New York Times and to read an encyclopedia cover to cover! You will pick up the most random bits of knowledge in an encyclopedia and it is absolutely delightful. Did you know that P.T. Barnum’s first name was Phineas? Or that the first car was invented and produced in the eighteenth century (that’s before the first bicycle!)? Or that Tuscan was settled in 1776? Thank you, Golden Home and High School.

4. The notion. But beyond that actual content of an encyclopedia, one of the things I really love about it is the very idea of it. Someone thought it would be really excellent to go through the known world and put down a little paragraph or two about everything in it so others could learn. I love the rather Victorian notion of alphabetizing and classifying the world in this way as well as the rather esoteric idea of helping someone else with a project as vast as an encyclopedia. (This is also one of the reasons I adore the OED, but that’s another story and perhaps even less transgressive, although possibly more literary…)

In short, I am an encyclopedia junkie. And if you’re still not on board, check out that episode of “Friends” where Joey buys volume “V” of the encyclopedia from a traveling salesman (if you can’t find it, there is a transcript here and part of the appropriate clip here.). Then you’ll understand the cheer and momentary mastery bestowed on an encyclopedia reader!


Entry filed under: Musings and Essays, Non-fiction, Transgressions. Tags: .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  September 11, 2009 at 10:14 am

    I cannot believe you mentioned the Friends episode! That’s exactly what I was thinking during your “factoids” paragraph :)

    Excellent post — it’s making me want to run out and get a set of encyclopedias!

    • 2. Corey  |  September 14, 2009 at 6:07 am

      I was barely able to not bring back the entire Golden Home and High School to Queens! Sensibly realizing the lack of space stunk.

      Joey and encyclopedias are forever entwined in my memory because of his Vesuvius thing! Also, whenever I hear/say the word “encyclopedia” I always think of Ted in HIMYM (see: episode “Intervention”).


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