“Mom, what do women Inuits do?” Sophie had started to think about her first big social studies project of the year. The other morning, she and I began to consult websites and bookmarked a few pages that, at quick glance, seemed to offer at least a modicum of useful facts. Not dissertation-worthy, mind you, but sufficient for a 5th grader’s one-page paper. When we finished, it was almost time for her to catch the bus to school.
“Wait a minute!” I exclaimed as she was preparing her backpack to leave. Sophie looked at me like I had lost my marbles. “I think I know where you can find more information.” I scanned the bookshelves in our living room. Not there. I paused for a couple of seconds, perplexed. “Where are they?” I wondered out loud.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Sophie asked, intrigued by my sudden burst of energy. Mind you, what I was looking for wasn’t a small object. There was no way it could get lost in our house.
“I know where it is,” I said out loud as I entered the TV room. I found my quarry and got down on my knees, as if in prayer. I asked Sophie to join me.
“This is the World Book Encyclopedia,” I announced with a mixture of glee and solemnity, flashing back more than 30 years to a vision of my pre-teen self turning the pages to find an entry on the Vesuvius-destroyed town of Herculaneum for a middle school project.
The 22 tomes sitting in front of Sophie and me were not the same tomes of my youth. My cousin, who used to work for a huge public library, gave us the amazing gift of a complete set a few years ago after her branch received a newer edition. It was pristine, having barely been touched in the Age of Google.
Although Chloe and I have used it a few times, Sophie hadn’t been aware of its existence until the other morning. I quickly explained how to find the entry about the Inuits and she set to work, first locating the correct volume and then finding the page.
And what Sophie found was a treasure trove. Ten pages of Inuit photos, graphics and facts. “How do they remember to put all that stuff in there?” she marveled as she flipped through the volume containing all manner of places, people and things devoted to the letter “I.”
After Sophie left for school, I had an unsettling epiphany. In the couple of years since Sophie has had projects requiring research, I had never once, until the other day, suggested she consult our encyclopedia. A 3D model of the solar system, a poster about Asian elephants, a brochure about the state of North Carolina, a report on the climate of Sweden…each and every time, the volumes sat on the shelf, unused and unloved, like Don Freeman’s Corduroy, while we Googled and Googled some more.
What had I been thinking? Rather, what had I become? I say that with humor, but also with nostalgia and a tinge of sadness. I feel guilty for inadvertently abandoning the encyclopedia in favor of the Internet. The latter has made all of our lives so much easier. Anything we need or desire is at our fingertips. But…
During the summer of 2014, my family took a vacation to the Grand Canyon and Utah national parks. For the length of our road trip, an AAA map was glued to my hand. There’s something incredibly satisfying about seeing thousands of miles laid out on your lap and tracing great distances with your fingers. As convenient as GPS is, it’s not magical in the same way. Using it feels lazy.
I reflected on the similarities between map-reading and encyclopedia-consulting as I thumbed through the World Book again this morning, randomly flipping to impala, Indiana (did you know the Raggedy Ann doll was created in Indianapolis?), Indochina, inis (the Irish word for island), Inverness, and isthmus. I was mesmerized by the all the words and pictures and knowledge squeezed between the covers, and I couldn’t believe that in all these years, with such a great resource right on our shelves, I hadn’t sent Chloe and Sophie to the World Book volumes first, as a matter of course.
We’re at an inflection point when it comes to books. I was heartened to read recently that sales of e-books have started to decline, while print has shown more resilience than many experts thought possible only a couple of short years ago. I am glad for that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having to toil a little bit before finding what we’re looking for. It makes reaching our destinations so much more exciting, don’t you think?
Do you have a set of encyclopedias in your home? And have you inadvertently neglected them, too?