On Books: A Nerd by Any Other Name

In future posts, we’ll offer recommendations for good books about aviation, science, writing, and collaborating. But as we were talking about those tomes, we realized that our most important book experience was as children in homes with a set of the World Book Encyclopedia. This encyclopedia offered our young selves answers we sought to specific questions—where is this country Uruguay, what are its capital, natural resources, and sports? Because topics are arranged alphabetically, the encyclopedia also instilled in us the habit of browsing. The order of entries isn’t influenced by popularity or supposed importance. The Aztecs can’t spend their advertising money to buy a spot at the beginning of Volume A. So, poking around in an encyclopedia led us to discoveries, and to a process that encouraged curiosity. We learned about things about which we didn’t know enough to ask questions, and we made connections through juxtaposition. We have come to believe that serendipity—strangely happenstance discovery—is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. At least in our universe, at least as we understand it.

In the early 70s, Doug’s grandmother Mariam, by then retired from teaching, sold World Book Encyclopedias. In a classic example of the chicken-and-egg problem, Doug has never been able to decide whether his curiosity about the world existed (unsatisfied) before he encountered the World Book, or whether the meeting between boy and book led to his inveterate inquisitiveness. Either way, when the 50,000+ gilt-edged pages, bound in beige and brown, found their way into his childhood bedroom, it was, as Rick Blaine eloquently stated in Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In grade school, the relationship between boy and book was intense enough that his nickname was The Walking Encyclopedia, or just Mr. Encyclopedia, to bookish fellow travelers.

Anna’s mother couldn’t imagine her five-year-old and toddler needing such a thing, but relented to the persistence of the woman they knew who sold the sets on the installment plan. In hindsight, Mary Lee would realize kids grow up faster than parents expect, and the encyclopedia set, built a volume at a time, was one of the best investments she and Andy ever made.   Among Anna’s favorite entries were articles on the planets of the solar system and the section of plastic pages that separated the human body into its layers of muscles, bones, and organs. Anna’s sister used the encyclopedia for an eighth-grade paper about pigs (now living outside Springfield, she toured the neighbor’s hog operation too) and for a paper about a president; she chose the president with the shortest encyclopedia entry, Chester A. Arthur. Anna’s father once even used World Book as the authority in a follow-up legal argument.

Growing up in a small, Midwestern town or state capital prior to the Internet, the World Book Encyclopedia provided access to the world’s accumulated knowledge, available on a shelf at arm’s length from our desks or beds, there to relieve boredom during sick days, provide answers to questions that popped into our heads in the middle of the night, or just because we went looking for information about salamanders and wound up in Salamanca instead. We thought the volumes were there to be opened, spontaneously and at random, just to see what might be revealed. That’s a nerdy way to think. That’s the kind of thinking—self-styled through curiosity, rather than merely by rote—we want to encourage in our students. In a recent article in New Writing, Anna publicly admits that she wants her students to be nerds.

The World Book Encyclopedia is a hallmark of nerds. You may use another descriptor, perhaps Renaissance man or pubic intellectual. You may use the cognitive science term divergent thinking. Majorie Garber, in Academic Instincts, discusses “the amateur professional and the professional amateur.” John Hodgman, in his address at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner, uses the terms nerd and geek interchangeably, recognizing a common philosophy of inquiry. That’s how Einstein defined himself, too, claiming he had no particular talent, but was “passionately curious.” Hodgman goes on to define with examples, “Radio talk show hosts are jocks. Bloggers are nerds.” We are those bookish nerds of which he speaks. The World Book—the set of volumes that gives kids the world—made us the nerds we’ve become.  

5 thoughts on “On Books: A Nerd by Any Other Name

  1. I remember when a traveling salesman came to our door–in the outskirts of Hickory, North Carolina–and sold us two sets: the World Book (black bindings) and a junior set (red bindings). I had just turned nine. As y’all wrote in the recent blog, having these around did instill in me not only the practice of looking anything up that I wanted to know, but WANTING to look things up! 🙂 We also had an old (1940s or 50s) set of the red and white Childcraft resource books, which had been my mom’s . . . and I remember just IMMERSING myself for hours in the Stories and Fables volume. I think it’s the only place I’ve ever read a collection of Norse legends.

  2. Thanks. Read the first article on encyclopedias and really enjoyed it. I still have fond memories of the clear encyclopedia pages on the body and solar system! Next for me came the D book for dog breeds. I think they had a picture of every dog breed ever, and for a couple of kids who desperately wanted a dog, losing ourselves in those pages was nirvana for my brother and me!

  3. We had the 1960 World Book growing up, and our son Aidan had a similar vintage set at his preschool, still providing valuable information, though obviously some things have changed. Yet he can tell you what former Soviet states are now independent countries!

    Like you, I enjoyed browsing, and often took much longer to get the information I needed because I lingered at an intriguing entry somewhere else in a volume. What I wonder is how most kids will feel about encyclopedias today, if they grow up with them on CD or online. Will their browsing experience be essentially different because they get the ‘right’ results when they type in the right search term? Or will their ‘fruitless’ searches (or embedded links in articles) lead to equally fruitful discoveries?

    In a way this is the same as information in libraries. I used to love browsing the stacks near the book I had looked up (especially when I had a big university library at my disposal). I often found better resources nearby, so I hate it when I find information online or no longer have free access to the stacks of a library and thus only get the information that I already know I want. Though we have more access to information online, are we in ways limited by technology to finding primarily the information we are already looking for?

  4. I was just reminiscing with Audrey about how formative the World Books were for me! I remember waking up almost everyday as an early teen with two or three of the books on my bed. 😉

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments! It’s great to hear how important encyclopedias have been to smart, interesting people.

    Don’t you miss the card catalog too? You could look for something and finding something else by accident. Now, there’s a lot of pressure to know what you’re looking for, and not realize what you’re not seeing.

    @Peggy: Yes, the dog breeds! I picked out an English setter as the dog I wanted. (I never got one, but then if my family were getting a setter at all, it’d have to be Irish.)

    @Kendall: So true! And to think when we were at Knox, they were still Soviet states.

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