“I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.” —Yogi Berra



If the internet is the I-39 information superhighway, the musty hard-bound encyclopedias of yore are the retro-nostalgic two-laner U.S. Highway 51 of my childhood as it lazily wound its way Up North past Windmill Ice Cream Shoppe on the scenic shores of Lake Nokomis.

Such were the thoughts that came to mind as I clocked in for work and my eyes were drawn to the wooden bookcase below, lined with World Book and Britannica encyclopedias. 

Their curious off-the-beaten-track positioning in the narrow hallway between the men’s and women’s restrooms was a mystery.

Did encyclopedias make compelling bathroom reading for journalists in the old school days of light boxes, border tape, pica rulers, proportion wheels, X-Acto knives, rubber cement and jaunty felt fedoras?

It was a mystery tailor-made for author Donald Sobol’s popular fictional boy detective Leroy Brown, nicknamed “Encyclopedia” for his encyclopedic range of knowledge.

Who knows? Maybe there was a bookcase of encyclopedias outside the bathroom at the Brown home on Rover Avenue in seaside Idaville. An avid reader of Encyclopedia Brown back in the day, I can’t say I remember reading such a detail, but then again it’s been a lot of years since I last read the books.

At a fee of “25 cents per day plus expenses,” the price would be right for Brown to delve into “The Case of the Curiously Placed Encyclopedias.” After all, there was “no case too small” for Brown. This mystery would, undoubtedly, prove a very small case.

Two score and seven years ago in the pre-internet age of my youth, classroom and school library collections of Funk &?Wagnalls, World Book and Britannica encyclopedias were THE authoritative go-to source for class assignments and research papers, in my own experience running the gamut from American elm trees and the galactic mysteries of Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s red “eye” to a wide range of Wisconsin factoids and the life and times of automaker Walter Percy Chrysler.

Cracking open the encyclopedias was always a learning experience, as much for the research topic at hand as for the exhilarating breadth of information at my fingertips as I circuitously meandered like Family Circus’ Billy through hundreds, if not thousands of entries from A-Z, a treasure trove of information put to good use decades later mopping up the competition at Trivial Pursuit. 

Taking the News-Review’s time-worn Eisenhower era “A” volume of World Book in my hand, I was effortlessly time-traveled back to another time. It was a veritable feast for the senses. The distinctive scent of the book.?The tactile feel of the thick, glossy paper. The familiar sight of the illustrative photos, line drawings and colorful maps.

Thumbing through World Book’s “A” encyclopedia in my newsroom cubicle in a happy, nostalgic reverie, I strolled down memory lane through a mélange of information, painstakingly researched, written, edited and fact-checked by Field Enterprises’ cadre of highly-credentialed editorial staff, bibliography consultants and research contributors listed on pages III-LII, which in itself required a pivot to the “R” World Book to brush up on Roman numerals spanning the range from 3-52.

Accordions. Acanthus plants. Adders. Air brakes. The treaties and congress of Aix-la-Chapelle. Arsenic. Asparagus. And everything you could ever hope to know about acetylene, Alabama, ambrosia, algebra, anchovies, aqueducts, 21st President “Arthur, Chester Alan,” autogiros, the manufacture of aluminum, and “careers in which arithmetic is useful.”

And while there are few folks who haven’t heard of aardvarks, whoever knew there was such a thing as the “rare and shy” termite-loving aardwolf, a carnivorous mammal found in treeless parts of south and east Africa. Until a few moments ago, certainly not I. Oh, and in case you were wondering, “it’s flesh is not good to eat.” Props to American Museum of Natural History Deputy Director and World Book contributor Harold E. Anthony for taking one for the team on that one.

Pulling up volunteer created-and-edited free online encyclopedia Wikipedia on my desktop, laptop or smartphone pales in comparison to the wonders of an old school faux leatherette dead tree edition encyclopedia, even one of a 1957 vintage. I would have never trolled together a quick read of all those disparate “A” World Book topics in a million years on Wikipedia.

At age 56 and currently getting up to speed on the Aran Islands off the west coast of Eire, “where the Gaelic tongue is still spoken,” I’m still learning new things — well, old new things — from a 64-year-old encyclopedia. 

I have only 18 more volumes of World Book to go before I start in on the 30 circa-1979 volumes of the News-Review’s Macropædia “Knowledge in?Depth” editions of The New Encyclopedia Britannica.

Plenty of bathroom reading for inquiring journalists. My hunch was right. Mystery solved.

If anybody needs me, you know where to find me.

When he’s not busy thumbing through the News-Review’s collection of encyclopedias, Assistant Editor Eric Johnson can be reached at ericj@vcnewsreview.com.