In the sepia tone years before the iBook and the iPhone, before Wall Street Journal went color, and before Al Gore invented the Internet; and when there were only two channels available to those privileged few who possessed a Zenith black and white television set; in those Polaroid-instant-black-and-white-camera days when refrigerators were called “iceboxes,” and when there were choices with “Ma Bell” for either “eight-party-lines” or “four-party-lines” or “two-party-lines (reserved for those who had “real” jobs at gravel pits and sawmills and not those Piney woods paupers, like ourselves, who subsisted on selling purple and white turnips cultivated by hand plow in a borrowed, brown-earth field [but whose extra-large AA brown eggs from the finest Barred Rock hens in Livingston Parish made us feel most rich, indeed]); yes, in those misty, old times when milk was delivered by milkmen in uniform (for we all had our parts to play) from local dairies (of “Guernsey gold”), not picked up at convenience stores (what could really be more convenient than having your milk delivered, anyhow?), and doctors’ offices were connected to the drug stores (owned by the doctor’s brother-in-law), and when there were old men and stories, and young boys, barefooted, sitting at the old men’s feet—a collection of muddy work-books and just-shined, tan, wing-tipped dress shoes—; and when ladies always wore hats to church, and men spit out Red Man tobacco before going into the sanctuary, there were, also, in those olden days,…books.
Let me tell you, child, about books. One could smell a book. I have tried to smell my iPad but I smell only the Starbucks Pike Place stains on the black-leather-iPad-cover, not a bad smell, mind you, but just not the same as the old-man-aroma of a well-worn volume. And among those books there was the encyclopedia—indeed, a set of encyclopedias. In those days when I was a lad, encyclopedias were mystic portals that allowed a farm boy from the piney woods of Southeastern Louisiana to crawl through and see a world that he could not even conceive. There were all kinds of encyclopedias—World-book, which the school library had and which I detested for their lack of air of British aristocracy (which I held as the mark of superiority in encyclopedias), and Standard and other lesser specimens. No encyclopedia could even compete with the prestige of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The announcement that the Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer be published in a printed form signals, in our day, not only the end of an era, the existence of a new age now here (in case you ever doubted), but also marks the death of an iconic symbol in rural America (itself now becoming increasingly vintage)—the encyclopedia salesman. Yet it was this man, this anonymous figure, who sold, that is artfully (and I say, “gratefully”) persuaded, my Aunt Eva the sign her name on a three-year plan that would promise to transport a poor, poverty-stricken Southern child from a five-acre farm, a hardscrabble farm at that, to tour the world without ever leading his bedroom. There was never a greater encyclopedia then the Encyclopedia Britannica and never a greater voyage to be had. But that was a day, and it was my day, and it was a long time ago — perhaps it’s almost half a century ago–when a wobbly, stout, little man with white short sleeve dress shirt and a clip-on tie ambled down the gravel lane, past a swamp, past the rough hand-hewn chapel called “the Tabernacle,” through the old gate, up the walkway, where Camellia bushes had become trees some decades ago, and onto our front porch. This man was not a Mormon missionary. There were no Mormon missionaries in the unincorporated, wooded farming community where I lived, although Aunt Eva would have welcomed them in for coffee, I am sure of that; but it was a time of Fuller Brush salesmen and strange people (think “Swamp People”) wandering about selling hunting dogs guaranteed to catch wild boars, and fat, juicy Catawba worms for catching the finest catfish from Beaver Creek; and Britannica salesmen. These were exciting days for an aged widow woman and her nephew whom she had recently adopted as her son. We had no neighbors close by and the strange visage of this fat but fearless figure bouncing down the lane with his oversize leather display case, over half his size, threatening to tip him over at any moment, was a most sensational prospect. Having salesmen call was better than a circus—although I had never been to one. I would say that that plump, little gentleman changed my life. That is not a far-fetched thing to say at all, now that I think about it. And that is what I will reflect upon today as I’m hearing the news now of the demise of the printed version of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In fact as I reflect on the story I have withdrawn (such a very Edwardian way of putting it, but I am feeling a bit dying-Empire-like today) into my library to pay tribute to the exact set of Encyclopedia Britannica volumes that my Aunt Eva purchased on that very day. As I gaze upon the fine set of Britannica tomes, still very spiffy on my shelf, demanding respect from every other book, I shall never forget the salesman sitting in our living room opening up his impenetrable, colossal, cordavan-leather briefcase to disclose the oracles hitherto hidden from mortals living near only scraps of that other world, offered to us from the Zenith by Huntley and Brinkley. The salesman grew happier as he opened two or three of the select volumes that he carried with him, and began to speak in an accent that I could not place (as I hear his voice in my head now, I hear, I would suspect that he was from some quite exotic place like Beaumont, Texas; or somewhere like that). He assured my Aunt Eva that to acquire the Encyclopedia Britannica was not merely a purchase, but an investment in the education of her boy. He deftly, and without any offense whatsoever, presented the reality of the poor country school that he had passed on his way here. “Is this the institution where this boy is to ‘educated?’” Aunt Eva could only nod an embarrassing yes. This man was more like a prosecutor than an encyclopedia salesman as he began his case! He amassed the evidence with an economy of breath and pauses. There was our obvious poor condition, again, the horrible little school he passed (not so horrible as I recall), there were random comic books he saw in our dark, brown and yellow, wall papered living room, which were corrupting me (I did take offense at that one); and on top of all of it all was the isolated and deplorable situation I was growing up in. Together, he announced the indictment: it was all contributing to nothing more than another gravel pit worker, if that. I was feeling rather hopeless. Without a father I had no mechanical skills. I did know agriculture very well. “Maybe I could be an uneducated farmer,” I recall thinking. But I wonder, now, about Aunt Eva. How did she feel? Well, he went on. And with the rhetorical skills that would stump Stephen Douglas, the little round man closed his argument with the highlight: full color plates within the encyclopedia. “The world of black and white is now over, my dear woman! Color photographs are here and in this book, which could be in your living room! Behold, Venice in full color!” Aunt Eva gasped. I grabbed the book, which is what the salesman wanted, and my wonder-filled eyes began to pour over the splendid pictures! Well, my Aunt Eva purchased them right then and there; though we had little money for such things. But she would later tell me, “Son, you don’t have any father and will not have any training to work with you hands, so you will have to work with your head. That means you will have to leave here. There is nothing here for you. You will need an education. That is why I bought those encyclopedias.” Today, a family might sacrifice to send their child to a parochial school or, perhaps, in another case, to a boarding school in New England. My Aunt Eva did what she could. And I will never be able to repay her for those volumes. Like a mythical phoenix on which I rode, they lifted me out of the backwoods life of an orphan boy with no opportunities to a lofty view of history and the world for my taking. Article after article, whether on atoms or Zebras, Barcelona or Whitefield, gave me something I have never lost: a love of learning. I spent many hours with the various authors—whether Albert Einstein or Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay—memorizing the names that matched the initials at the end of the article. indeed, money and even encourage me to interact with the book the pencil. Now that may be anathema to some of you, but Fred even for me—and I advocate this to others—reading is a thoroughly interactive experience, where one may squiggle on the side of the margin, underscore some memorable line, mark out some disagreeable opinion, or even offer a prayer in writing. I did most all of those things with my encyclopedias and those childish marks are recorded for my family, if ever they want to know what was on my mind. I admit, though, that I am the one who rather likes to look at them now. Mortimer J. Adler would have been proud. Thus my education began.
I talked to my son, who is now seventeen, about these things. He told me he understood completely. He told me that he has the same thrill in researching innovations in Medieval European medicine or the development of weaponry in Japan in the 18th Century. Of course, his research is on a computer. I give him his due. In so many ways, it is the same. Encyclopedia Britannica knew that and for that one reason they will, perhaps, survive the digital revolution. They will not become the Pennsylvania Railroad of the 21st century. But for one boy, now writing these lines, I will always be thankful for that one Encyclopedia salesman in the rural South, and for Aunt Eva who was smarter than us all and knew the value of truth and that all truth is, in fact, God’s truth.
Postscript: Years later, as a young pastor, working, simultaneously on a Ph.D. with the Theological faculty in Lampeter, Wales, the late Dr. James Montgomery Boice was in our home, preaching at our church plant. After finishing a light fare that my wife had prepared for him, the esteemed pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia inquired about the progress of those doctoral studies. After I gave him a response, he leaned in, looked me in the eye, and told me words that I will never forget. Indeed, the words he spoke come to me now, as I consider the right use of education, and as I teach and seek to prepare a new generation of pastors: “Mike, always remember that the pulpit is deserving of the finest scholarship that the Church has to offer. Children deserve their pastor to be a scholar, not for other scholars, but for them. The more truth of God’s Word, the more freedom. That is why we study.”
It is a strange thing to mix James Montgomery Boice with a tale of a traveling encyclopedia salesman and childhood memories, and then to think about children in church and preparing pastors in seminary. But that has been my life. Jesus’ words must be the last thought which covers this essay for they are the Word for me today:
“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32 AV).
And if that is all we had, we would have all we need.
- 244 Years: Encyclopedia Britannica Stops Print Production (geekologie.com)
- Encyclopaedia Britannica going out of print (foxnews.com)
- Why I Hope Real Books Never Die (and They Won’t) (theaquilareport.com)
- You Are the Living Legacy of Those who have Gone Before: Another Motivation to Go the Distance in Ministry (michaelmilton.org)
- E-Reader Lets You Physically Turn the Page (foxnews.com)