Saturday, November 9, 2013

My Influential Books: Richards Topical Encyclopedia

This third in a haphazard series of essays on books that made a big difference in my life follows posts on You Will Go To the Moon by Mae and Ira Freeman, and Yellow Yellow by Frank Asch and Mark Alan Stamaty. Today's: Richard's Topical Encyclopedia, copyright 1959.

I wasn't yet born when Richards Topical Encyclopedia was published, but I might have been on the way. I'm not sure what Mom was thinking when she bought it. She had no higher education herself--I infer she only scraped through high school--but books were important to her and encyclopedias were the most important, highest-status books of all. She was a poor single working mother with two kids but nevertheless managed to outfit our house with (as I recall) three sets of encyclopedias by the time my sister and I could read. I think at least one of them was the sort you could buy volume by volume every time you went to the grocery store. It's possible she was repeatedly suckered by slick door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen, but I'd rather believe she was doing her best to till fertile ground for her children's minds to grow.

The set's 15 volumes weren't organized alphabetically, but by subject: science, social studies, industry, art, biography, leisure activities. Each volume comprised many short articles on particular subtopics, all well illustrated. Although the reading level seems aimed at pre-teen kids, their content was solid and thorough. I don't see any condescension or "dumbing-down."

I read them all, enthralled. Some volumes several times.

That had some unfortunate consequences. Getting a reputation as "the weird kid who reads encyclopedias for fun," even if it's not a regulation encyclopedia, had its social drawbacks--though knowing many of my blog's regular readers, I'm sure that's familiar turf for some.

Volumes 1 and 2 had all the astronomy and physics material. I practically wore them out.

Richards Topical Encyclopedia did me the great favor of introducing me to the work of space artist Chesley Bonestell, at right. By the way, kiddies, that photo of Mars on the left was about as good a view as anyone had of the Red Planet until the mid-'70s. Because I'm old. (Click on any of these pics to see them larger.)

Volume 14 was the real jackpot: "Leisure-time Activities," which were summarized on the volume's spine as "manual arts, games and sports, fairy tales, fables, stories, myths." What an understatement! Unmentioned on the spine: riddles, jokes, codebreaking, magic tricks, puppetry, card games, brain teasers, candy making, and fort building. Many rainy and snowy days were passed lost in the pages of Volume 14.

A spread from the mythology section, a great companion to Edith Hamilton's classic book. Also probably where I saw my first nekked women. Bless the ancient Greeks and the Romantic artists (and generations of young boys) they inspired.
My sister and I would occasionally put on magic shows featuring feats from this volume. Some of them worked some of the time.

I cannot express how much I wanted to build this private clubhouse with its secret subterranean entrance. Never got around to it, although it's still on my bucket list.

Our original set of Richards Topical Encyclopedia was lost more than 30 years ago. At the time, Mom and Dad had a coastal vacation home they rented to visitors; it had to be stocked with household stuff including old books, and when the home was later sold the stuff went with it. Somehow, Volume 1 got culled from the herd and eventually ended up in my bookcase. That gave me all the information I needed to years later find the entire set on eBay. Got it for a good price. Some people don't recognize solid gold.

I'll never know why Mom bought Richards Topical Encyclopedia. But if some salesman convinced her that it would change her children's lives, he was 100% right. She got her money's worth.


karen m said...

I'm pretty sure ours were the Encyclopedia Britannica, and yes, I am pretty sure my parents bought them from a door to door salesman. I spent many happy hours perusing them.

Linda Wilhelm said...

We had the World Book Encyclopedia, but I wore out the D and H volumes for dog and horse breeds.

Anonymous said...

I think it was on your 3rd reading when Mom informed me you weren't put on the Earth to entertain me. Boo!
Nurse Sis

Phyllys Faves said...

Wow! Thank you for this blog post with the wonderful pictures. My favourite was volume 14. My oldest sister confiscated it for her family so it is now the only one that still exists!

Brian Fies said...

Thanks, Phyllys! It's nice to make this kind of connection with a shared history.