Oh, To Read the Encyclopedia

books education knowledge encyclopedias
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Whenever I read a book about the encyclopedia, I am overcome by an urgent desire to read one. This is not, as it might seem, an isolated incident. It happened five years ago when I read A.J. Jacob’s book The Know-It-All in which he described the year he spent reading the encyclopedia cover-to-cover. It happened again when I read Simon Winchester’s new book, Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge from Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic. And idea of reading the encyclopedia has been consuming me these last few days as I read Simon Garfield’s All the Knowledge in the World: The Extraordinary History of the Encyclopedia.

I even have a plan for how I’d go about reading the encyclopedia, based upon my notion of the butterfly effect of reading. Here’s how it would work:

  1. I’d start at the beginning, reading the first entry in the first volume. My only rule is that I must complete each entry that I start.
  2. Once completed, I’d highlight the entry title to indicate that I’ve read it. Then, I’d do one of two things:
    • Continue on to the next entry, OR
    • Follow on to one of the cross-references that caught my attention in the entry just completed.

I suspect that in this manner, I’d scurry my way through the volumes like a mouse navigating a maze. What I’d really be doing is following wherever the encyclopedia led me, seeing more and more highlighted articles over the months and years. I imagine it would be interesting to keep a record of the order in which I read the articles as a way of, a kind of Theseusian string that would led me back through the journey I had taken. In my imagination, I marvel on the day that I find that one of the volumes has all of its entries highlighted–an event certain to warrant a celebration.

When I was young, we managed to obtain a set of encyclopedia. I no longer recall the edition, but I remember being fascinated by the weighty tomes, the small print, the illustrations. In my fantasy of reading the encyclopedia, I alway imagine a print edition. I see this effort as something to do off-screens. I still try to read off-screens each day. The random article I read each day is almost always in a print version of a magazine, and I keep a paper book on my nightstand1, separate from any audiobook I may be listening to so that I can read before bed without need of a screen. Reading an actual paper version of the encyclopedia is the only way that I would want to undertake this challenge.

Alas, I don’t have an encyclopedia at hand, and I don’t have space in my office, already crammed with more than 1,200 books, so for now this will have to remain a pleasant day dream. Maybe when I retire, however…

Written on 9 May 2023.

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  1. Currently, A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals.


  1. I tried this when I was about eleven. Earlier my mom had challenged me to read the ten volumes of “The Book of Knowledge”. Once I finished that, I started on our set of Encyclopedia Americana but gave up after two volumes as I found them too boring. Even though I am now retired, I am unlikely to read them. I’ve gotten much pickier about how I spend my time.

  2. I’ve had this passing thought once or twice myself, Jamie. (Also after read AJ’s book!) But I soon realize that it would probably be more boring that I’d be willing to suffer through (I’m thinking about long articles on the Great Lakes or things like “flood plain” would put me to sleep.)

    I’d advise you to pick up a copy of an encyclopedia now and save it! They’re going the way of the dinosaur. My local library no longer has any, and I have a used book store that literally takes anything – last week’s newspapers, magazine, dirty worthless paperbacks – but they wouldn’t take my set of encyclopedias!

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I am missing your regular posts and hope all is well with and for you.


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