Fields Untrodden

How would you like to be the first on your block to read books nobody else does? I can introduce you to a genre of literature that has been ignored by everyone except the creators of it since the art form was created. These are entertaining, informative books that offer hours of good, clean fun (or the other kind, if your eyes are good and you have that kind of mind.) Confuse your friends at a party by citing an article that they not only have not read but are going to have a stack of trouble finding. I don’t think most of this is even available ONLINE, to show you how obscure it is.

What you want, of course, is an encyclopedia yearbook. You’ve never seen one? Yeah, they’re invisible, too; the eye sweeps past ‘em. But it is only you young’uns of today who think the encyclopedia was once an Infallible Source of Knowledge. “Nowadays, it’s obsolete the day it’s printed,” you say.

Whaddya mean, “nowadays”? I have a revelation for you, chocolate chowder: we knew that then. The people who sold encyclopedias knew we knew it, too. So when they sold a set they pushed the fact that it could be updated annually. “We publish a yearbook,” they said, “So every year, each article is really updated. You’ll be able to check the newest data available.”

Okay, old-timers. Yeah, you. Remember doing reports for school and looking stuff up in the encyclopedia? Did you EVER go look up updated material in the yearbooks? Did you ever SEE anybody look for new data in the yearbooks?

We were a Collier’s family. Collier’s Encyclopedia was a dignified black in those days, but the yearbooks were a bright brownish red. I remember when they’d arrive, we’d look through them, mainly at the pictures, recalling the year gone by. The smell of those yearbooks, fresh out of the box, was like nothing else on earth. (Look, French-fried cheese stick, this was before Worlds of Warcraft; we got our excitement where we could find it.)

Read them again? I’ve had customers at the Book Fair cheerfully buy a forty year-old set of encyclopedias and say to me, “But can we leave the yearbooks behind?” I’ve had donors keep their encyclopedias for future use, but bring me the yearbooks. I firmly believe that an encyclopedia yearbook is read once…if that.

But I hold in my hand here a pristine (obviously unread) copy of the 1970 yearbook for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, still in dust jacket, which proudly proclaims a lead article on Kenya by Jomo Kenyatta. The editors of the yearbook are agog over the year they have to cover (1969, always the year before the date on the cover, to make it look even more up to date). Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon and the Mets won the World Series: how can you cover such a year? Conor Cruise O’Brien has written an article on strife in Northern Ireland, the secretary of the British Board of Film Censors discusses the new morality in motion pictures, and you can see John Lennon and Yoko Ono stage a bed-in for peace. The material was written especially for this book, hundreds of pages of it. And it has waited unread, for a knowledge-seeker like you.

So pick up an encyclopedia yearbook: if nothing else, it’s soothing to look back on all the half-forgotten crises we thought meant the end of civilization. Just don’t try to buy one from me. I sell them only with their original sets of encyclopedias. When somebody donates loose ones, I sell ‘em to a man who builds computer tables out of them. Somebody has to support those Worlds of Warcraft habits. 

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