The Life and Afterlife of an Encyclopedia

The Britannica salesman - pleasant, not particularly pushy, in a suit and tie - came to our house on a Saturday afternoon in 1958. I was 10. My brother was 12. My parents listened to the salesman's pitch politely, even a bit eagerly. He had been invited, perhaps after a phone call or following up on a postcard mailed by my mother.

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The salesman's presence in our living room was unusual. My parents didn't often invite strangers into our house (unless it was Jehovah Witnesses or LDS elders, whom my father would engage in lengthy theological debate, to the mortification of the rest of us). The salesman's brochures were glossy. He had sample volumes bound in russet leatherette to hand around (each volume was nearly four pounds).

There must have been talk of price and terms, but I don't remember them.

The salesman also offered, at added cost, access to a research service that would gather data on any question you asked (strictly limited in frequency, however). All you had to do is write the company a letter with your inquiry and include a small, golden-yellow coupon. A sheet of them (with instructions) would come when the encyclopedia was delivered. There was also a Year Book service that would send a new volume with highlights of the year past and updated entries to keep the encyclopedia current. My parents agreed, thinking (I suppose) that they should get everything educational that Britannica offered.

My parents had about as much money as anyone in my working-class neighborhood. My father, who worked as an engineer for the Southern California Gas Company, was paid no better than most. The encyclopedia was a major expense.

When the encyclopedia arrived, it was shelved in the new bookcase my father assembled in the "den" (actually the smallest bedroom of our small house, about 10-by-10 feet).

The Encyclopedia Britannica replaced an earlier set - the American Encyclopedia, I think it was - that my mother bought at the supermarket, partly in weekly installments and partly as a promotional giveaway by the supermarket chain. That encyclopedia had simple, short articles and a few line drawings. But it was enough, compounded with back issues of the National Geographic left by my uncle - to set my history and geography reports apart from other kids'. The nuns were impressed.

Strangely, the replacement Encyclopedia Britannica wasn't as useful. History and geography reports weren't assigned as often in the upper grades of my elementary school. In high school, tests and term papers (we called them "themes") didn't require as much looking up of facts.

I did send away for one or two research reports. They took months to come and didn't seem to be more than what I could have read in the encyclopedia myself. I did read the encyclopedia, although not with the hunger that others, years later, have recently reported.

The volumes of the encyclopedia stayed on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, with annual additions until, I think, 1968 when the year book service ran out. The volumes lingered there until my brother and I entered college.

Sometime in the early 1970s, my parents gave our set of the Encyclopedia Britannica to Mr. Osorio and his wife, who still had young children in school. Mr. Osorio mowed lawns in my neighborhood, including ours. His wife did domestic work. My parents were their sponsors when they sought to become U.S. citizens.

I'd like to think that the Britannica did the Osorio family more good than it did mine. As far as I know, their children went to college. At least one earned a graduate degree and became a college teacher.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has ceased publication in print. It will be a subscription, web-only research site. And now it won't be anything you can give away.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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