Reflections on the passing of the Encyclopedia Britannica


The Transparencies

In the Encyclopedia Britannica I used as a kid,
the body was built in layers of transparency,
a skeletal foundation you could overlap
with, one by one, the circulatory system,
the muscles, the organs, the flesh—
or, likewise, you could peel away from the whole
and leave only bone, two full spreads, of course,
one for each sex. Hours I spent
with the glossy images, lifting up or laying down
as if there in the shiny representations of bone & flesh
I might find where it starts.

Thanks to my friend Jackie for pointing me in the direction of this poem by Glen J. Freeman (published in Rattle, June, 2010), which captures so beautifully the sense of wonder and awe I felt each time I opened a volume of our own Enclyopedia Britanica as a child.

I remember vividly the travelling salesman sitting in our living room showing us what new worlds awaited if we bought the beautifully bound gold lettered set of encylopedia. My parents could ill afford to buy them, but having saved some money for a rainy day, they saw it as an investment in their children’s future and a symbol of how far they had come in life.

The excitement we felt when the books were delivered and the years spent doing homework at the kitchen table with one or other volume to hand is still very much part of my childhood memories. And when not using it for homework assignments, I could be found curled up reading sequentially through each of the volumes, lost in other worlds.

Years later, when we grew up, left home, and discovered that even more worlds awaited us thanks to the world wide web, my mother, with time on her hands at last, could be regularly found sitting at the kitchen table, puzzling over  her latest crossword, a dictionary and volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica to hand. The very last photograph I have of my mother taken before she got ill and sadly passed away in November, is one I took of her with several volumes of the Brittanica and her crossword spread out before her.

So, reading today that 244 years after the iconic reference books first went to press, the Encyclopedia Britannica is expected to announce that it will no longer print its 32-volume set of printed encyclopedias, I felt a rush of nostalgia.Thinking about the encyclopedias which rest now,  no longer read or opened in the home which my mother will never return to fills me with incredible sadness. Mixed in with the tears is  gratitude and love for all that she did to give us everything she could to make us who we are today.




3 responses »

  1. Oh that brought back SO many memories! I think my mother got rid of our Encyclopedia Britannica set when she recently moved house to a much smaller one. I used to love reading through it. What a wonderful image you’ve given me of your mother with the encyclopedia and her crossword puzzle. So many of our parents made sacrifices for us to have opportunities.

  2. I know its a sign of the times but its a huge part of our lives. I just turned around a had a look at my set now, my kids are grown so we dont use it as often. I love those books.

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