Jews are often called the People of the Book, a reference to our reverence for sacred writings, but in my nonobservant childhood home, the book we turned to most frequently was the encyclopedia.
In the pre-internet world, Encyclopedia Britannica was king. If your parents — and, by extension, you — were really ritzy and a bunch of smarty-pants to boot, you were a Britannica household. If you were middle class, your bookshelf groaned under a more modest brand, the World Book.
Over at our working-class manse, we owned Compton’s Encyclopedia. We were a Compton’s house, because my fourth-grade teacher strong-armed all the classroom parents into buying Compton’s, saying it was “the absolute best” and “essential for our academic wellbeing.” Even then, I sensed a kickback scam.
And with each purchase came the annual obligation and angst to buy the yearbook update. “Buy NOW!!!” And buy now my mother dutifully did.
For each grade-school geography and history report, I knelt and prayed at the altar/bookshelf of Compton’s. So, too, for each high-school literature and science report, my brother turned first to Compton’s for guidance and counsel.
The only one who ever voluntarily opened a Compton’s tome was my father. He would — at random — grab a volume, sit down in his beloved worn green armchair, light up a cigar and start reading from page 1. He had a photographic memory and would absorb anything and everything of interest. Then, at the dinner table, he would share it with us in a way that was fun and fascinating. I don’t think he literally made it from A to Z of the set, but I know he gave it a run for his money.
When I mentioned my father’s encyclopedia-reading habit to my husband, he said as a child he, too, used to read volumes of the encyclopedia for pleasure. His was a World Book house, probably bought by his father on installment from a door-to-door salesman.
Meanwhile, back at our house, my mother was a devoted fiction reader. Her need for information was served by The New York Times and weirdly, the Farmers’ Almanac.
Thus, her relationship to Compton’s was somewhat remote. She turned to it but once a week when entering the family room, rag in hand, she dusted those crème-colored books into pristine shape.
I don’t know when my family parted company with our encyclopedia. We moved multiple times across the country. Was it a question of bulk, or did I, as the youngest child, “intellectually” outgrow Compton’s? I confess I can picture pretentious Seven-Sisters-College-student me saying to my father, “Oh, Daddy, ‘we’ don’t use encyclopedias. They’re for children. I use primary source materials for my research.” This makes me cringe, but I can see it.
My husband and I never bought our children an encyclopedia. Today, thanks — or at least because of — the internet, encyclopedias are passé. Research, even primary source material, is readily available on the computer. It’s great.
But it also makes me sad.
I may have had a love-hate relationship with my family’s Compton’s. Yet we were a family united by that set of books. I miss that time. I especially miss the sight of my father sitting in his chair, reading from a volume and regaling us with information, useful and miscellaneous.