Southern Man

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Encyclopedias, Then and Now

The previous post reminded me of the long, wonderous East Texas afternoons that Southern Boy spent poring through his great-grandmother's 1962 World Book Encyclopedias. He probably read (or at least skimmed) the whole set, cover to cover, two or three times before he was twelve (but, unlike Britannica Guy, failed to write a book about it). Some of the articles still stand out pretty sharply in his mind; the entry under "Bomb," in particular, was quite extensive, with lots of diagrams of how various types of air-dropped muitions destroyed buildings, and has (not surprisingly) been watered down considerably over the years. Indeed, Southern Man would like to find an old set (or at least Volume "B") and see how accurate his childhood memory actually is of that and a few other articles actually is.

The real beauty of the encyclopedia was the juxtaposition of utterly unrelated articles. You would fall from an article on a particular venemous Austrailian snake (taipan) right into a well-known breakaway Chinese state (Taiwan) or from orchestra to Ordovician. The print dictionary has something of the same charm, and it's something that modern online resources lack.

On the other hand, online resources like
Wikipedia (a Southern Man favorite) are extensive and usually quite accurate and often surprisingly well written and the extensive hyperlinking gives them a charm all their own. Try playing "Six Degrees of Wikipedia" someday - select two entirely unrelated topics, start with one, and try to get to the other in only five clicks. You meet some of the most interesting articles along the way. Or just start with a random article and follow links. Southern Man will often while away a few idle hours doing just that...just as he did at great-grandmother's house so many years ago.


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