Nu, I have been cleaning out the office over the past few weeks and getting rid of stuff, including books. After having worked in a library, I have come to want own fewer books rather than more: after all, I know that most books can be in my hand in no time at all, more easily than ever now with the advent of e-books. (I have never been one to fetishize the artifacts themselves: it is the text that matters most, not the delivery box.) The exception I have most consistently made involves obscure, out-of-print or hard-to-find books; I will hold onto those. And I am not entirely without sentiment: a few books are keepsakes. The two pairs of volumes that I am now thinking about fall across both those categories.
The first set at hand is the Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia, complete in two volumes. (For some reason "Aa to Lavaca Bay" has been burned into my brain, but I had to look at its spine to see that the second volume is "Laval, F.X. de to Zworykin." I guess the second does have less euphony.) I have a battered 1968 edition; the first copyright was 1953. These are among the few books that I remember being in the house in Brooklyn when I was a child, and I took them away with me, first to college and then cross-country to the west coast.
For years, this set was my go-to source during discussions or debates, a Whitman's Sampler of Western Civilization, as good for a late-night stroll through new neighborhoods of knowledge as it was for finding the point that settled a disagreement. After going to the movies, I would come home and look up people or places or historical events mentioned in the film, following related words through as many entries as possible before I had had my fill. Now, of course, I just come home to Google and Wikipedia.
This delightful little pair of books takes up less space than a gallon of milk, and could easily rest in peace on my bookshelf. But to what end, I have to ask myself? It is hopelessly out of date. Sure, the short entry on the Dutch East India Company will hold onto whatever relevance it has, but Neil Armstrong has no listing and the Vietnam entry just mentions that U.S. ground and air forces were committed to the region and ends with "A constituent assembly was elected in 1966 to draft a new constitution." A lot has happened since 1968: think about it.
And it's not like the books have a lot else to recommend them. This is no 1911 Britannica: there is no deathless prose and the list of contributors holds no names that are recognizable, much less famous, today. As find as I am of these books, unassuming is the word that comes to mind when describing them.
The next entry is quite the opposite.
The People's Almanac by David "Reclaiming-My-Ethnic-Heritage" Wallechinsky and his dad, writer Irving Wallace, are about as assuming as it gets. Released in 1975 and 1978, this series is painfully counter-culture and in-your-face alternative. The books purported to "go beyond often repeated, unchallenged data and offer the behind-the scenes, frequently omitted truths." For example, the entries in the "World Nations" chapter of this almanac have the subheadings Location, How Created, Size, Population, Who Rules, and Who REALLY Rules. This take can be both refreshing and annoying.
It is useful to have an unvarnished account of U.S. history, without the typical whitewashing. For example, the books remind us of the medal awarded to Charles Lindbergh by Hitler in 1939 and how Lindbergh blamed America's involvement in World War 2 on "the British, the Jews, and the Roosevelt administration." However, the books suffer from sloppy scholarship and writing. In this example, the clear implication is that Lindbergh made his remark when he received the medal, when in fact, the quotation comes from a speech given in Des Moines in September 1941. (And I'm no Lindbergh scholar, but it only took 45 seconds on Google to find a citation.)
When the books are not "lifting a few historic rocks to see what crawls beneath" they are reveling in the groovy: "She Wrote It, He Got the Credit," "Dictionary of Sex Related Terms," and "Inside the Good Earth: What's Going On under Our Feet?" are some of the sections. Many of these are entertaining; many of them fall into the trap of accepting the anti-establishment set of facts without demanding proof, as much as the almanacs they were counter to accepted the establishment line. A good example is the book's non-critical take on long-lived Georgians in "Guide to Shangri-La: The Leading Longevity Sites on Earth."
The biggest flaw in the series, however, is its lack of organization. I remember a collection of some teaching stories, little monk parables, that I enjoyed from the book; I cannot find them again. The section headings are clever rather than descriptive; the indices are underdeveloped; and with almost 3,000 pages between the two volumes, browsing for anything specific is useless. It has been 35 years and I still haven't found the stories again.
There are some gems in here. In the chapter "Eureka! - Science and Technology," the section "Can Man Change the Climate?" ends with "Of course, no one knows for sure whether the atmosphere's temperature will increase because of the increased carbon dioxide, or if it does, what effect it will have on climate. We do know, however, that the effect of increased carbon dioxide in the air needs further study." Right on, man.
In Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, one protagonist spends the last hours before post-comet-strike social breakdown securing his personal library in a septic tank, each book preserved with bug spray and sealed in ziplock bag. He later buys his way out of the chaos and into an enclave of civilization with Volume 2 of The Way Things Work and the admonition that Volume 1 and four thousand other books were in a safe place.
I am not sure that either the Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia or the People's Almanac would make that cut; their usefulness in rebuilding civilization is questionable. Clearly, the books are markers of their age; in fact, their juxtaposition tells much about what "the Sixties" were actually all about. I am not sure that cultural curiosity is enough for them to keep their places on my shelf, and I don't think I'll be storing them in a septic tank vault, but I must see some value in these paper wikipedias or they would have gone to the thrift store long ago.