By PAUL MCELROY
In my defence, men of my age don’t often get stopped in the street by attractive young women unless it’s an offer of help to cross the road.
There may have been some short preamble about being from the Driftwood and conducting their weekly Salt Spring Says feature, but I probably missed that in the excitement of being accosted.
“It’s Freedom to Read Week. What book should everybody have access to?” Just like that. Not even an invitation to discuss it over dinner. “What book should everybody have access to?”
I could have said, “Ulysses by James Joyce.” Clever people always say, “Ulysses by James Joyce” because they know that most of us couldn’t get past the cling wrap, let alone Chapter One. Or the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Or any dissertation on the Canadian constitution.
Instead I said, “Encyclopedia Britannica.”
I ask you! Encyclopedia Britannica in a Wiki world where you have merely to ask Siri and there it is. Instant informational gratification . . . more or less.
“Siri, what was it Sophocles had to say about mortality?”
“Thank you, Paul. Here are the recipes for roasted Brussels sprouts I was able to find.”
OK, so it’s a work in progress, but Siri sits in your pocket while the complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica could fill a small bungalow. I know that because it filled our small bungalow when I was a kid. My dad bought the entire set from a man selling them door-to-door, one a month at about a pound a volume for two years until we were potentially the most knowledgeable kids in the neighbourhood. In January, after the first installment had arrived, I became an expert on aardvarks, in February I contemplated the Beatitudes. By the time I was 14, I could tell you everything about zygotes. (I know nothing about hippopotami because my little brother cut that page out for a school project.) Oh, and if you bought the full set, you got a wood-substitute bookcase to put them in.
So, the Encyclopedia Britannica was the go-to source for everything in our house. If one of us came down with a rash, mum would turn to the encyclopedia. “Sma to Tur. Book Nine. Smallpox.” Or for homework. My teachers must have marvelled at my grasp of English history (Alfred, Edward the Elder, Aelfweard … ) or that I could define algebra (“the part of mathematics in which letters and other general symbols are used to represent numbers”) without actually being able to solve a single equation.
And I never really understood why I couldn’t keep a girlfriend until much later.
“Yes, nice dress, but did you know the Assyrians invented the kilt long before the Scots, but the Greeks . . . oh, yeah. Bye.” It’s not that I was boring, but I just couldn’t find a girl who would stay around long enough to get to “sex,” between Saint Stephen (stoned to death in 36AD) and Sextant (an instrument for determining latitude and longitude).
It could have been worse, I suppose. The first edition of the Encyclopedia was compiled by a man called William Smellie, so you can imagine that HIS success with the fair sex in 1780 would have been seriously compromised. “Good evening! I’m Smellie and I know everything there is to know about just about everything.”
And so did I — except what possible use the Encyclopedia Britannica could be to a generation where everything you will ever need to know is yours at the click of an iPhone.
But here’s the difference. If something was in the Encyclopedia Britannica, it was true. You never doubted it. It wasn’t like the Bible, which you either believed or didn’t. Or Wikipedia, which is apparently compiled and edited by people with an axe to grind. Or Google, which will give you half a dozen alternative realities. It was just the true facts. With pictures.
So now that I think about it, there is a place for it in this Trumpian dystopia of lies and distorted truths. Everybody should have access to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
And it’s online, so you won’t even need a small bungalow and cheap bookcase.
The writer retired to Salt Spring six years ago after 18 years as a journalist on the Daily Mirror, London. Before that he worked for the Province, the Vancouver Sun, the Sydney Sun, Australia, and the London Daily Express.