Friday, January 19, 2024

Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein, on Self-Improvement and Encyclopedias)

“Self-improvement is at the heart of the encyclopedic enterprise. People certified with degrees from what the world considers the best universities and colleges sometimes forget that we are all autodidacts, on our own in the endless attempt to patch over the extraordinary gaps in our knowledge. Doing so in an efficient way is the promise held out by an encyclopedia, which claims to provide all the world's pertinent knowledge, right there in 24, 29, 32 volumes, usually with a bookcase thrown in at no extra charge.” —American essayist and editor Joseph Epstein, “Wisdom on the Installment Plan,” Wall Street Journal, June 18-19, 2016

As a youngster, my “self-improvement,” such as it was, came courtesy of a more modest encyclopedia set than the one Epstein posits: the 10-volume New Wonder World Encyclopedia.

My family couldn’t afford a 10-volume set, let alone one double or triple in size, so I believe this one came as a gift from a neighbor who worked for the publisher, Parents’ Institute.

What I know is that, while ignoring some volumes in the set (e.g., Agriculture and Industry), I positively tore through several others: Masterpieces of the Arts, Treasures of Literature, Highlights of American History, Great Events of World History, The Nations of the World, and most of all, Famous People of All Time, foreshadowing my lifelong interest in biographies.

The volumes were liberally filled with photos and illustrations, increasing its appeal for a child. They whetted my interest enough so that several years later, I was ready for the three-volume Columbia Encyclopedia, Third Edition, with denser type but no eye-catching graphics.

It’s impossible to imagine for someone growing up in the digital age, but for a reader with endless curiosity decades ago, minutes could fly by with print volumes—and it was not time the least bit wasted.

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