Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Autumn Leaves

We are fortunate to live in a neighborhood with a large number of towering oaks and maples. Their leaves are starting to turn to the blazing autumn colors we experience every year. The trees are one reason we bought our house here in 1988: judging from a couple we had to have taken out, most are about 120 years old. The builders who constructed the subdivision in 1968 left as many of them as they could, and we benefit from them every day.

They have to be maintained so they don't fall over or shed huge limbs during storms. I'm glad we had ours trimmed up last year so that during the derecho in June we just had a few small limbs on the ground.

For some reason, I was thinking of leaf collections and wondering if kids still did that. I went through a collection stage when I was about eight through about age ten. I collected rocks, elephant figurines (no idea why now), models of airplanes, and leaves. Yes, I actually had a leaf collection of about twenty different kinds, carefully pressed and mounted in a big album I think I made myself. It was good practice for the required ninth grade biology leaf collection project. I pressed the leaves between pages of our encyclopedia until they were dried out. They were also very brittle and fell apart a couple of years later. Sic transit gloria mundi, I suppose.

Thinking of my leaf collection made me think of encyclopedias since they were the pressing method. 

I found that as an adult I had an aversion to encyclopedias.  I wouldn’t agree to buying one for our children when they were younger. It was expensive, and, I thought, unnecessary.  There were better ways to find out information even before the days of the internet.

My dislike of encyclopedias might have come from my elementary school experience.  We were repeatedly warned not to copy our reports out of the encyclopedia. I don’t recall anyone actually trying to get away with this, so there was no trauma associated with some poor kid being hung from the flagpole after his report on dinosaurs, but the warnings must have scarred me for life.

It seemed to me even then that our teachers wanted us to use multiple sources for our information, to think for ourselves about how to put that information together, and to draw our own conclusions.  That’s not a bad way to approach education.

We had something called the New Century Encyclopedia at home, about ten dark burgundy volumes which did have black-and-white and a few color pictures. One of them, I recall, was labeled “Car of the Future” and showed something like the Batmobile with a single huge fin on the rear. It should have been called “Car of 1938.” One of the color pages showed poisonous snakes of North America. I am afraid of snakes, and, in those days, convinced that one day I would be bitten by a poisonous snake and die a horrible death. (I was bitten by a cat about a year ago and quickly developed a painful infection.  But I am not afraid of cats.  Go figure.) The information in any encyclopedia soon became outdated. (Although I still think Pluto is a planet.) We preferred magazines and newspapers for information and used encyclopedias for basic information.

The big guns among encyclopedias were the Britannica which I thought dense and dull (if authoritative) and the World Book which had pictures and a yearly update. Becky speaks of receiving a World Book one year for Christmas. I wonder what an eight-year-old would do with such a present these days.
Encyclopedias do have a long and distinguished history, reaching perhaps a culmination in the  Encyclop├ędistes  of  the 18th century, a group of Frenchmen who attempted to gather all knowledge in a set of books. How Enlightenment of them. This effort reminds me of the Commissioner of the Patent Office reporting to Congress in 1843 that  "The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end."  And that from someone whose business was inventions.

Of course, encyclopedias have moved online along with a pile of  other (sometimes reliable) information. The Wikipedia, a sort of peer-edited encyclopedia, is deemed about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. (I’d still rather have an editor looking over whatever I publish.) World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica have online editions, although they’re still published as books.  They were originally sold door-to-door like much else. Door-to-door sales are not so long gone—we bought our first vacuum cleaner in 1974 from someone who was essentially a door-to-door salesman.

I wrote a newspaper column several years ago about my thoughts on encyclopedia and I thought I was going to be hurt by people who loved their sets. That's fine with me, and I did hear a lot of good stories about them, including one from a fellow who used to sell them door-to-door. It was evidence of a bygone era.

As a teacher, I hope everyone keeps learning all they can. Remember to use a variety of sources, evaluate your material, think for yourself--and don’t copy out of the encyclopedia. You can always use them to press your leaf collection.

1 comment:

  1. I remember the smell of burning leaves, but you can't do that anymore.

    And, I remember our World Book Encyclopedia. I loved the serendipitous nature of it, because I always ran across interesting facts while looking something up.

    My husband refused to get encyclopedias for our children because he thought them superficial. He wanted our children to read books about things that interested them, not summaries.

    Different perspectives.