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.

25 comments:

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!
xo-
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.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Volume 14. A treasure from my childhood. I was looking at it tonight and reading some nursery rhymes to my my grandson. I did an internet search and that's what led me to your blog. It's nice to know someone else appreciated it too.

Dorothy Kurtz said...

I still have those encyclopedias. My parents bought them, and through the years, my brothers and I used it for reference and research. I now have then in my collection.

Brian Fies said...

Thanks, Dorthy (and Anonymous from May)! I think they're worth collecting.

Stephen G said...

At a party one of my father's friends suddenly yelled: "He reads the encyclopedia!" I wasn't embarrassed. I still have them.

Anonymous said...

We had these as well and I attribute my knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology to vol 14. Also loved the multilayered "see through" human body.

Anonymous said...

Volume 14 kept me company throughout my childhood. I was fascinated by the stories, the beautiful illustrations, the activities, etc. I'm happy to see it's cherished by others as well.

Brian Fies said...

It turns out there were a lot of us who spent our childhoods with these books! Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

My sister saved Vol. 14 when my parents down-sized. I just recently was able to borrow it from my niece - it's like she handed me my childhood....

Brian Fies said...

It was wonderful, wasn't it?

Joseph Sych said...

We did build the clubhouse!! When my Dad saw that we were serious about it (i.e., after we had dug the underground part ourselves), he used it as a learning opportunity to show us how to frame a building, put on a roof and he even wired it with electricity (he was an electrician by trade). We spent many happy Saturday nights out there. After my cousin donated a very old black and white TV, we would watch the late "Shock Theater" movie on channel 8 out of Richmond, Virginia. Great memories, although unfortunately our set of encyclopedias was lost over time.

Brian Fies said...

Joseph, your note made my week. You built the clubhouse...AND IT WORKED! Fantastic! Wish you'd been my neighbor back then. Thanks a lot for the story.

Dorothy Kurtz said...

I wish I had the time and money to put them on a flashdrive.

Unknown said...

I grew up with these wonderful Books. I'd LOVE to turn up an old Set

Steve Jensen said...

I woke up today remembering this artifact from my childhood, 50-some years ago. I decided to see if I could find it online, and this blog was one of the first things that came up! My own favorite volumes were 7 and 8, the history volumes. I was just fascinated, at 9 or 10, learning the names and dates of all the European monarchs, which gave me a good grounding in history later on. I, too, grew up in a household with multiple encyclopedias--Richard's, the Encyclopedia Americana, an encyclopedia of science, and the Childcraft Books, a multi-volume set (bound in bright orange) that were like an encyclopedia, but more literary. Now we have the Internet, of course, but in those days a set of encyclopedias was probably the greatest gift parents could give a child.

Brian Fies said...

A lot of people have a lot of good memories about these books. Thanks for the comments!

Judy McDonough said...

Brian, thanks for this wonderful blog. I've been thinking about these books for years now, having grown up with them in our house. I always liked that my research for school reports cited to a source no one else seemed to have, and always appreciated that even though we had lots of kids in a small house we had our own full set of encyclopedias. We also had a set of four books that were purchased from the same door-to-door salesman that sold us the Richards; they were bright, primary colors and had poetry and stories, and I think animal and science facts. Did you have those, or maybe one of your readers did? I would love to know what they were so I could see if I could pick up a set or some of the volumes. Thanks again for a wonderful walk down memory lane.

Brian Fies said...

Judy, thanks for the comment! I don't know anything about the four-volume set, I don't think we ever had them. I wonder if you could track them down online (not much to go on...)? There's nothing quite like curling up on a rainy Sunday with a book that takes you away to somewhere else.

Judy McDonough said...

Brian, I'll let you know if I find them. Enjoying your Mechanical Monster follow-up comic, too. Good stuff.

Mrs Fletch said...

I have a set of these encyclopedias too. My grandparents had them in a linen press & when I was quite young I would sit on the floor under the cupboard door where they were with Volume 14. Our set were older as they were printed just after WWII, but didn't mention the war& no colour pics. I inherited them eventually.

Brian Fies said...

What a great memory! I didn't realize earlier editions of these encyclopedias dated back to the post-War years. Thanks for sharing your story.