Beverly Beckham

No good answer what to do with his encyclopedia

A set of The New Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias holds an oversized place in the home.
Beverly Beckham
A set of The New Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias holds an oversized place in the home.

They aren’t even mine. I inherited them. They came with my husband not on the day we were married but not long after, a set of encyclopedias, which had lived in his bedroom when he was growing up.

“Take them,” his mother must have said. Or maybe I asked for them because, the truth is, I loved them. Because, they held for me all the knowledge a person would ever need. Thirty-six beautiful, matching, not leather but stately, books filled with facts about places I’d never been. Bright photos of paintings by famous artists; long biographies of well-known writers; new discoveries of unknown scientists. I would arrange these books on a bookshelf in our new house and I would read every one and learn not just about the planet Earth but the entire universe. No more having to go to the library, knowledge suddenly accessible, at my fingertips, just waiting to be discovered.

Of course I never read even a single volume. But, for years, I loved simply looking at them. Occasionally I’d pick up one and search for something, Henry VIII, Martin Buber, but as time went by the things I looked up, Truman Capote, Zimbawawe, were nowhere to be found.


And then came the Internet. And Google.

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Moribund is what these encyclopedias are today. Not quite dead but almost, full of maps of countries that no longer exist, full of science that is no longer fact, full of information next to misinformation.

I moved these books upstairs to shelves behind closed doors years ago. No one uses them. No one ever has. My kids. Their kids. No one.

They aren’t relevant anymore. But once they were. In the middle of the last century, they were a leg up, a ladder leading to someplace heady, someplace worldly. They were a prized possession bought on the installment plan.

A man -- only men were salespeople then -- would ring your doorbell after 6 p.m., after all the dads were home, or on a Saturday when they were home, too. And he would come into your house, jacket pressed, pants creased, a shine on his shoes, and a promise that for a little money down and just a few dollars a month, parents could give their kids the most important thing anyone could ever give anyone. “What’s more important than knowledge?” this man would ask. And though our parents knew nothing was more important, none of them signed on the dotted line because a set of encyclopedias was way beyond their means.


Thirty-six matching books? Our whole neighborhood together didn’t have 36 books. My family’s one and only hard cover was an unabridged dictionary that weighed about 1,000 pounds. (The dictionary salesman apparently found my father’s Achilles’ heel.) But if you look at all the encyclopedias that are now for sale on eBay, it seems as if every house in America had a set. Maybe there were neighborhoods where every house did. But not mine.

When our local grocery store started selling encyclopedias, a volume a week, the way they sold pots and pans and dish sets, a few parents picked up a book now and then. But the volumes were pricey, so the kids I knew had only the first one, which covered most of the letter A, because it was free.

So why do I continue to cling to these obsolete books that were not even mine? They take up space. They serve no purpose. “Take a picture, then give them away,” my husband says, his solution -- and it’s a good one -- to everything we have that we no longer need.

I take a picture. I take two. And then I remove the books from the shelves and one by one place them into boxes that I will take to Savers.

Knowledge is fluid. Facts change. What was thought to be true 60 years ago may not be true today. I never read these books, anyway. They should mean nothing to me.


But for reasons I cannot understand, they do.

Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at