Tuesday, April 12, 2011

When All Else Fails

The threatened defunding of the Statistical Abstract by the Census Bureau (see here for more) produced, in midst my panic, an up-rush of memories, some very recent, of what to do when all else fails. When all else fails, there’s still the book. If you’re in luck it’s on the shelf; if not, our library is in walking distance. For Christmas this past year I got a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is a 1956 edition, in pristine condition, printed on lasting paper, illustrated by black-and-white photographs, the very occasional color photo (e.g., Trees of North America) and—and this is a genuine pleasure—here and there even an etching or two, no doubt retained from earlier editions. One of them, more or less at random, is subtitled Plowing with a 3-furrow plow. Tractor equipped with lights for night work. Nineteen fifty-six—the year I entered the Army.

At that time, in my Mother’s house, our source of information about the world came from a 1919 edition my mother had obtained at a side-walk sale. This particular EB had a similar history. John and Monique were visiting here last fall during a kind of outdoor fair. John and I wandered about, fingering wares. And there was an EB out there, but under a table, and not exactly up for sale. How it got there is a little mysterious. I think the lady had planned to sell it, but then she changed her mind. I tried my best to make her change her mind right back but failed—John a silent witness. But he knew what would please me for Christmas… Behind the books all sorts of scenes like that that only surface when memories return. Now I have an Encyclopaedia Britannica again—and when all else fails…

Actually we have three sets of encyclopedias. One is a Funk & Wagnalls (1972). We got it new. Yes, it was a budgetary compromise, but we had to have one, children, you know. It is a competent and useful work, more color photographs but not that many. The other is a World Book Encyclopedia (1989), a visually stunning, gold-leaved work, seemingly brand new and never touched—and obtained for the hauling right from the curb-side of a dissolving household two years ago.

In time one learns—especially if one is in the business too—that reference works are just as ephemeral as anything else, but their life-cycles are longer. This is true of encyclopedias, dictionaries—and above all statistical works. Continuous publication of the last is absolutely necessary in order to maintain any kind of deep view of the past. This means that, for certain subjects, it is very useful to have old as well as newer versions of these works. Fashions change. Emphases change. And, indeed, on my periodic in-depth looks at this or that, I’ll be looking at all three—all open to the same article and Wikipedia up on the screen. But the always handy Wiki just doesn’t have lungs it takes for real mountain climbing or deep spelunking in the dark.

What a relief it was, the other day, in search of mathematical fundamentals—old textbooks on algebra, trig, and calculus all having failed me—when I discovered, indeed with surprise, how complete, indeed almost personally casual and tutorial the EB article on my subject sounded, still revealing the individual authorship that those articles have. But the odd thing is that we are too easily tempted by the superficialities of the Internet and content ourselves with thin, thin summaries when genuine information in real depth is actually available right there, if mutely, on the shelf. And all you need for access is a knowledge of the alphabet.
Image source is Wikipedia.


  1. I still have my grandmother's 1936 EB. There are numerous items covered that would never make the light of day now. The discussions on the arts - I'm thinking of Opera particularly - go into a fair amount of detail about artists that are now ignored.

  2. Thanks for that wonderful example, Montag! One tries to keep these posts short. I had laboriously assembled several instance just like you cite, of interesting differences. But it's even better when they come, succinctly put, from readers!