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:
- 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.
- 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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