Tuesday, April 15, 2014


I have given away, or thrown away, a lot of books in the last couple of years. I can’t take them with me as the saying goes – there’s only so much space and goodwill where I’m going, and anyway too many books turn out to be once-only experiences when I really thought about them. They were ditched without much angst, and many found good homes. Not so the books of knowledge.

If I put them all together there are probably two generous shelves of such books that I am not prepared to part with. They include the obvious, such as dictionaries (English, French, German, Latin and Italian) and thesauri (I like Roget but generally find myself reaching for the Oxford – have to keep both). There are the specialist dictionaries too – of biography, of English synonyms and antonyms, of phrase and fable, of proverbs, of foreign words and phrases. 

Then there are the books of quotations – biographical, humorous, modern, Shakespearean and even New Zealand. There are histories and compendiums of all kinds of literature, and handbooks of grammar and style and usage, with dear old Fowler (Modern English Usage) still hanging in there like the old fogey that he is, but standing next to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style which may never date. And there are quirky oddments, like The Originals: Who’s Really Who in Fiction in which one can identify the real models for fictional characters – fascinating.

There is only one encyclopedia on the shelves though – the Penguin Encyclopedia, published 1965, priced at 12/6 ($1.25). It is, of course, almost useless now. You can imagine how the world has changed since 1965. And now it is so much easier – and more reliable – not to reach for a book but for the phone. The other night at a small family dinner, we needed to know several diverse things, including information about schipperkes, the relative populations of Port Macquarie and Timaru, and the weather for the next day.  No encyclopedia would have told us anything up-to-date about any of those things.

The august Encyclopedia Britannica has given up trying. After two and a half centuries the EB is now an on-line, constantly updated, publication.  First published in 1768 in three volumes, the last print edition came out in 2010 in 32 volumes.  Billy Connolly (among other comedians) will no longer be able to recycle that old joke: For sale: Encyclopedia Britannica, brand new, no longer required – wife knows everything.

My modest Penguin Encyclopedia is also no longer required. Out it goes. But the other books of knowledge still have their uses and can stay where they are – for now.

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