Cover to cover

Last night I read about a dozen pages about the history of Yugoslavia, followed by half a dozen pages about Zoroastrianism. With that reading, I finished a task that has taken me almost three years, reading the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Macropaedia from cover to cover.

My family has owned this encyclopedia set for a while, as one might surmise from the mention of Yugoslavia. When a salesman came by the house sometime in the previous century, I jumped at the chance to own a copy of the prestigious Encyclopedia Britannica. When I was growing up, my family had two encyclopedia sets—one was called the Book of Knowledge, and the other was the Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia. I remember my mother coming home from the grocery store with the Funk & Wagnall’s, one volume every week until we had the entire set.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with the Encyclopedia Britannica, it consists of three sets of books. The first set is called the Micropaedia. Our edition has twelve volumes, consisting of short articles about a great many things. Following the Micropaedia comes the Macropaedia. Our edition has seventeen volumes, consisting of longer essays about important and complex topics, ranging from geography and history to biology, chemistry, physics, economics, psychology, philosophy, religion, and the fine arts. There is also a one volume Propaedia and a two volume index, for a total of thirty-two volumes.

When we got the encyclopedia set, I built a bookshelf to hold all thirty-two volumes. This shelf and its volumes have a prominent place in our living room. Nobody is ever expected to read an encyclopedia set from cover to cover; the encyclopedia is a reference source, a place to check if one wants to remember when Christopher Columbus died or how many symphonies Mozart wrote.

With the Britannica came a brochure about another set by the same publishing company: the Great Books of the Western World. I would have liked to buy that set, but the Britannica pretty well exhausted the book budget of the family for some time to come. I kept the brochure, though, and scoured the family library to see how many Great Books we already owned. When people asked what I wanted for Christmas or for my birthday, I would give them a list of Great Books not yet in our library. Over time, I hoped to accumulate the equivalent of the set of Great Books—not in matching covers or all the same size, but the content was what mattered to me.

Then came a windfall opportunity. I was volunteering to organize books for the used book sale at the local library. Donations come throughout the year, but the sale only takes place three weekends of the year. I noticed that a local college had donated a set of the Great Books. Three volumes were missing, and a couple more were water-damaged. As we moved around other books, I kept eying the set of Great Books. Finally I mentioned how much I wanted to own a set like that. The director of volunteers replied, “We can’t sell this set in this condition. Do you want to take it home?”

“How much are you charging?” I asked, with hope that it would be something I could afford.

“It’s a gift,” she answered. “It’s my way of thanking you for all your help.”

In late 2007, then, I brought home my free copy of the Great Books of the Western World. I pulled out the old brochure to identify the missing volumes, and I was delighted to see that I already owned copies of those works. Since it was late in the year, I decided that I would wait until January 1, 2008. Then, on New Year’s Day, I would begin reading Homer’s Iliad.

Nearly five years later, I had reached my goal. In five years I had read the entire Great Books series from Homer to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. As I closed the last volume of the Great Books, I wondered what I should choose for my next great reading project. My eyes strayed across the room until they were captured by the Encyclopedia Britannica.

On January 1, 2013, I started reading about accounting. (“A one and A two…”) I didn’t read every day, but on the days I did read, I averaged about twenty pages. I was reminded about many things I had learned in high school and college and had forgotten. I found new material to add to my lectures in history classes. I finally understood things I had wondered about for years, such as what it means when someone says, “Polar bears aren’t really white; they just look white.” As I read, I tried to pick up one interesting new item to remember each day. I couldn’t list them all for you now, but some of them do spring to mind again from time to time. (Did you know that rabbits are not rodents?)

Of course the big question now is what big project do I want to start this January? The Micropaedia is trying to get my attention…  J.

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