So you've finally cleared your bookshelves of all the book
s you haven't read in years and have dragged them down to the used bookstore
to see if you can squeeze some credit
from them. As the owner sorts them (your hopes rising and sinking as the "accepted" and "rejected" stacks increase in turn -- it looks like you're still
stuck with that hideous oversized Book Club edition of The Deerslayer
Grandma gave you in sixth grade) you browse the stacks and wonder what will take the place of Michael Moorcock's Elric
series in your home.
Well, if you have enough credit I suggest you wander over the the shelves where the really old editions sit. Hardbound and gold-lettered, they still possess a certain threadbare majesty despite the occasional water stain or frayed corner courtesy of some hungry rodent's teeth. They cost more than paperbacks, but they have character, and history. And if you're lucky, you'll come across an old encyclopedia.
I may be alone in this, but I can't for the life of me recall one time where I've ever read a modern encyclopedia for pleasure. I don't mean that I never take pleasure in learning facts. It's just that the book itself doesn't particularly enthrall me. The goal of the modern encyclopedia writer seems to involve being both comprehensive and objective, which are admirable things but which don't in and of themselves make for bang-up prose.
When reading an old encyclopedia on the other hand, you are more likely to encounter a personality. It's like sitting down with a highly educated, well-read, well-traveled person in their study; they tend to be precise and formal, maybe a little eccentric in their ideas of what constitutes important information and a bit of a pedant, but altogether an agreeable sort to listen to and spend some time with.
It's also a fascinating look at a world long gone. You will be reliably informed that Greece is currently a province of the Turkish Empire; that the United States rate of postage is two cents an ounce; and that a mixture of castor oil and gruel is used to provide "the ordinary enema".
I have here before me The Century Book of Facts, Standard Edition, copyright 1906, collated and edited by Henry W. Ruoff, M.A., D.C.L. It is a large, thick, dark green tome with an embossed cover and an interior that has a comforting smell like the houses of the elderly Southern ladies my grandmother would always take me to visit when I was a child.
Flipping through its pages, I will take the liberty of sharing a few random discoveries:
"Auerbach (OW-er-bok), Berthold, 1812-82. Ger. novelist, of Jewish parentage; a founder of the German tendency novel of the present day; author of some forty volumes of fiction, much overweighted with philosophy. His reputation was established by his romance, 'On the Heights.' He excels in description but is weak in the construction of plot."
In the table under "Digestibility of Food", (said to be "approximately correct" and "of very general practical interest"), digestion times for various foodstuffs are provided. An excerpt:
"The main end to be sought in the education of the blind is to fit them to compete in as many ways as possible with the more fortunate who can see, and take them out of their despondency and give them a worthy object to acccomplish in life."
The antidote for Belladonna poisoning is "an emetic of mustard, salt, and water; then drink plenty of vinegar and water or lemonade."
"Dr. Timothy Bright's 'Characterie, or the art of short, swift, and secret writing', published in 1588, is the first English work on shorthand."
"The making of Spanish needles was first taught in England by Elias Crowse, a German, about the eighth year of Queen Elizabeth, and in Queen Mary's time there was a negro who made fine Spanish needles in Cheapside, London. At his death the secret of fabrication was lost, and not recovered again till 1566."
Under "Property Rights of Married Women", we learn that in the state of Texas -- which seems to have been the most restrictive state in this regard -- "The property owned by husband or wife before marriage, and what either may acquire afterwards, by gift, devise, or descent, is community property. The husband controls the common property and the wife's separate estate. The common property is liable for the debts of either, and the husband may dispose of it. At the death of either, the surivor takes one half and the children the other half of the common property. The husband joins wife in conveyance of her separate property. She joins him in conveyance of homestead. A married woman cannot do business in her own name, but she may become security for her husband by mortgaging her separate estate."
"Marriages between whites and Chinese are void in Arizona, California, Mississippi, Oregon, and Utah."
The Temple of Diana at Ephesus is "said to have been burned by the Amazons about 1182; again by Erostratus, in order to perpetuate his name, B.C. 356; again by the Goths, in their third invasion, about 262 A.D."
"Kentucky - Indian name signifying 'The Dark and Bloody Ground.' The nickname is 'The Corn-Cracker State.'"