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.