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Everything old is not necessarily new again

Back when I was growing up, if you got out an encyclopaedia and looked in Volume 6, EAS - ELK, you would find my Dad's picture under the entry for "Easy Mark".

Back when I was growing up, if you got out an encyclopaedia and looked in Volume 6, EAS - ELK, you would find my Dad's picture under the entry for "Easy Mark". I swear encyclopaedia salesmen had painted an X on the sidewalk outside our house, because every year or so, one would come around, spend an hour with my Dad, and leave with a wad of cash.

Dad believed his kids should have ready access to all the knowledge in the world, and over the years he probably bought eight or nine different sets of encyclopaedias. Brittanica, Americana, Grolier's, the Book of Knowledge ... the list was seemingly endless.

But he made sure he got full value for his money. In our house, we knew if we asked even the simplest question, one we were sure Dad could tell us the answer to right off the top of his head, he would refuse.

"Look it up," he would say. To him, there were no shortcuts. He wanted us to roll up our sleeves and do the work of learning.

You'll be shocked to hear that my kids have also heard the words, "Look it up." They, too, were brought up to dive into dictionaries and encyclopaedias. My youngest now is the librarian at a middle school - a perfect place for a kid who grew up loving books. Last week she came to me with a sad dilemma.

"We're doing an end-of school-year cleaning," she said. "Out with anything old and musty. It's a health and safety thing. And I have decided to throw out two sets of encyclopaedias."

My jaw dropped. "You can't do that!" I gasped. In our family, we don't throw out books. That's for starters. And we certainly don't throw out entire sets of books containing the collected knowledge of mankind.

She was firm. "No way around it," she said. "Dad, they're encyclopaedias from the year 1990."

Still, 1990. That wasn't all that long ago. I remember being in high school and using a set of the Book of Knowledge my Dad had bought before I was born. Things don't change that much.

"Oh, really?" said my daughter. "Let's look at Volume 3, BAZ - BYL. Here we have a long entry about that awful Berlin Wall that separates East and West Berlin and is a focal point for tension in the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union ..."

"Well, that's just one thing," I said.

"But it's wrong," said my daughter. "But okay, good point, it's just one thing. They can get the proper information if they check the Internet. But oh, wait! They can't, because according to this encyclopaedia, no such thing exists. Computers are giant machines owned by big businesses who can afford to store them in a climate-controlled environment, useful only for doing complex accounting problems."

And the more we looked at it the more I realized she was right. Those encyclopaedias were a key to understanding the world. Problem is, it was a very different world. Nobody had heard of "cell phones". There were no entries for "Bill Gates" or "Microsoft". There were entries for "Blackberry" and "Apple", but both included pie recipes and neither mentioned bandwidth or web surfing capabilities.

In fact, the only entry under "surfing" dealt with waves and boards and Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. "Text" was a noun, not a verb. The entire underpinning of our popular culture hadn't even been dreamed of. You would no more find "Facebook" in the encyclopaedia than you would "Elbowradio".

Politically, there were signs the Cold War was ending. The Soviet Union was the world's villain, but it still existed at that point. It hadn't blown apart into dozens of tiny states so poor they couldn't even afford vowels for their names.

Of course, there were signs that was about to happen. The Russkies were close to economic and political collapse, thanks to pouring trillions of rubles into an excruciatingly futile effort to bring some sort of semblance of order to this place called "Afganistan". (Oh, how we chuckled at their woes! Did they not remember Vietnam?)

"Still," I said. "Throwing out encyclopaedias feels wrong. Can't you give them away to a school that doesn't have enough?"

"So those kids can have access to all sorts of false information?" she countered. "So they can write essays about our ally, Saddam Hussein, and how important the cod is to the Newfoundland fishery, and how the Concorde is proving that supersonic flight is the wave of the future?"

So this past week, she and a couple of student helpers loaded two full sets of encyclopaedias into a dumpster. The collected knowledge of our species, discarded as trash. Because sometimes, everything old is just old again.

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