Monday, November 16, 2009

A quest for knowledge leads to old, dusty books

Like most good children of the 1980’s, I thought we were practically Daddy Warbucks when my parents took the leap and purchased our own set of encyclopedias.
No more trips to the library where you had to wait in line until someone done was pouring over volume X, only to have your turn and try to copy down, by hand, everything about your subject. Once we got those encyclopedias, I thought, my school reports would be astronomically better. I was elated at the opportunity to peruse anything I wanted, from hamsters to the North Pole, at my leisure.
My parents opted for the silver set, which looking back I’m pretty sure was the same old set of encyclopedias with sliver around the edges, but back then made me feel even more proud of the thousand pounds of books that happily warped our family room bookshelves.
Not only that, but there must have been a deal involved in there somewhere because we ended up with an entirely other set of books, all labeled with a famous philosopher or scientist. Back then I was determined to read each and every one, ready to drink in the wealth of knowledge that my parents provided me with, all because it was there and available.
I was convinced that everything I needed to know in the entire world lay on those shelves, and by ingesting those books I would be the smartest person in the world (surely smart enough to merit my own volume one day) not to mention win every game of Trivial Pursuit that ever there was.
But instead, like most kids, I just went out to play. I don’t even think I made it through the first page of Nietzsche. That same wealth of knowledge still sits in my parent’s basement, untouched and unopened since the final report on Diplodocus that capped my senior year in highschool.
Flash forward a few years, and my own children are about at that age when the school reports are beginning to trickle home. Couple that with their natural curiosity and my inability to answer their questions (because I never read those encyclopedias like I wanted to), and we are starting to find ourselves looking up the answers to life’s greatest questions.
For example, “what’s a sun dog?” or “can kangaroos swim?”
We logically go to the fastest place to find answers: the internet. And anyone who has recently gotten an email stating that Bill Gates is going to send you one million dollars if you forward the email onto 25 people in the next four minutes knows that a) the money never shows up and b) your friends can’t believe you fell for that scam again and c) the Internet is both a valuable tool and a bunch of bologna.
Any quick search of a subject (i.e. sundog) will take you to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Anyone. Even you or I. About anything. (I am secretly thinking of writing up a glorious and flattering article on myself.) While most of the information on there is probably correct, there’s no proof that any of it is real, and it certainly doesn’t have the same feel as a twenty-pound book laying on your lap while your hand cramps up from copying every last known detail about the Diplodocus.
Call me old fashioned, but I’m thinking of digging up our old set of encyclopedias and letting them warp my own shelves for a while. Some of the information might be a little outdated, but I’m pretty sure that hamster research hasn’t skyrocketed in the last two dozen years, and I’m even surer that Nietzsche hasn’t written anything of late. We will display them proudly, and the kids can research to their heart’s content.
And then we’ll probably end up googling it just to be sure. Even Daddy Warbucks would rather hit “print” than copy an encyclopedia by hand.

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