Friday, February 6, 2015


Grolier & Co.
safely ensconced in a Tennessee bookcase

I remember that long-ago day almost as if it was yesterday. I was six years old and we were living in Glendora, California. I particularly remember that day because when I was playing outside I had found a rusty old razor blade and accidentally cut myself with it.

While trying to stop the dripping blood, my mind was racing with dire warnings about sharp, rusty things. You'll get blood poisoning and die. You'll get lockjaw.

The thought of having to have my mouth pried open with a crowbar in order to ingest a hamburger was a fate worse than death. Eventually I forgot about the cut and the razor blade. It's probably unnecessary to mention that I survived.

That was also the day when the traveling salesman came to our door. He was selling books - specifically the Grolier Encyclopedia and Book of Knowledge. To say that my father was staunchly opposed to salesmen is a gross understatement. He was extremely hostile at first, then merely argumentative. If my mother hadn't stepped in as an impartial mediator, the door would have been promptly slammed in the salesman's face.

Book of Knowledge
A rational conversation eventually ensued and my father became partially calm, which was all anyone could possibly hope for. The conversation, to me, seemed extraordinarily long. It dragged on for well over an hour. Upon learning that I loved to read, the salesman seized the opportunity to extol every virtue of the encyclopedia and predict the endless future benefits that I would have on its behalf.

My father was one helluva tough nut to crack and in time I think the salesman was actually sweating blood, but in the end - miraculously - dear ol' Dad acquiesced and the contract was signed.
Grolier Encyclopedia
We had to wait several weeks for the books to be shipped from New York. The entire entourage included the Grolier Encyclopedia, the twenty volume Book of Knowledge, the ten volume Popular Science, the seven volume Lands and Peoples, a big two-volume Dictionary, and an even bigger World Atlas. And a "free" bookcase to compliment the ensemble.

Popular Science and Lands and Peoples
The books were beautifully bound with thick, glossy pages. They actually smelled new, kinda like a new Chevy. I was almost afraid to touch them for fear of tainting their newness.

My father reinforced my fear by constantly warning me not to "ruin" the new books, and even more constantly reminding me that they cost $200. An enormous investment for books back then.

As a child I was a voracious reader. I'd read unabridged editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when I was eight. By the time I was ten I was reading Jane Eyre  and Wuthering Heights.

My father was always quick to rain on my reading parade. "You're always hiding inside  the house reading," he'd snap. "Why the hell don't you go out and play like the other kids?"

His attitude suddenly changed after we got the Grolier books. "Why the hell aren't you ever reading the new books?" he'd bark. "I paid $200 for them and they're going to waste."

I loved the new books - - but I wasn't about to ingest a total of fifty volumes in one sitting. Good things take time. Over the years they provided an immense amount of information and reading pleasure.

My father - perpetually convinced that I wasn't reading them enough - never failed to remind me of the books. Even when I was a teenager I'd hear the same mantra: "I paid $200 for those damn books. When the hell are you gonna read them?"

His attitude didn't change when I was in my 20's. And 30's.

"I paid $200 for those goddamn books and you never even opened them!"

He was completely oblivious of how often I did read the books and how much I enjoyed them. No amount of persuasion could convince him otherwise.

In my 40's I was almost finding humor in the mantra that I knew so well. The books were in a bookcase at my parent's house. A mere glimpse of them would cue my father to grumble.

"I wasted $200 on those goddamn books and all they did was sit on the shelf gathering dust."

The books came into my possession after my parents died. Acute sentimentality has inspired me to keep them.

When I was in the frenzied process of moving from Texas to Tennessee, I hastily (and carelessly) tied the books together with twine and tape (which seriously marred the binding).

When the movers rudely informed me that they wouldn't take anything that wasn't secured in a box, I quickly began jamming every one of the Grolier books into boxes.

And I grumbled to myself:
My father paid $200 for these books, and I'll be damned if I'm going to leave them in Texas!


  1. Cleverly organized post, Jon. I did NOT see that last line coming. You were fortunate to have a single set from one company. Ours was from several that spanned 1890 to 1930 --probably where I started imagining alternate history.

    1. Believe it or not, I didn't see that last line coming, either. I thought of it at the very last minute. It's amazing how much world history has happened since those old Grolier books were published. Alternate history, indeed.....

  2. This story of yours touched my heart. Oh the magic and thrill of encyclopedias. I remember them well in my household too. My dad actually physically threw the encyclopedia salesman off our property, but that salesman was persistant. Ultimately my parents caved and bought a set.

    1. It's wonderful how a simple event can conjure so many memories. Sadly, I think home encyclopedias (once so important) are now largely a thing of the past.

  3. What a delightful - and poignant read! I totally 'get' your desire to keep them near.
    But last line, Jon ... that's classic!

  4. If anyone ever told me that I would write a post about encyclopedias, I would have said they were crazy. As I told Geo., the final sentence came to me out of the blue. I hadn't initially planned it.

  5. Jon!
    Would you believe I had (past tense) the same books as you pictured in your blog? The very same books. My Mother purchased them for me and my brothers. We didn't have the same drama in the purchase (but probably the same salesman). My father didn't care about things like that. I read the books some but I don't think my brothers ever did. I carted those volumes of books with me during all of our moves, even down here. Eventually I came to the decision to part with the books which I will never read again (I have other volume series, Time-LIfe to be exact). I didn't know what to do with them but I know I wanted the shelf space for the too many books I still have (in fact I even brought another five shelf bookcase this morning at Walmart). I gave them to my DirecTV guy who used to live in this development (he has since moved). He had two young daughters that he said would appreciate them when I offered him the books. I hope they found a good home. I lost contact with the guy when he asked to borrow $2,000 to pay off his bills (I guess he thought we were gay saps - he was cute but we weren't into him that way, he misread our friendliness). Now what to do with my American Heritage series of books. I paid a LOT of money for them!

  6. By the way Jon, I loved that last line too! :)

    1. It's amazing that we both had the exact books. I only know of one other person who has them - and she's a friend of one of my friends who lives in California. I checked the current value of the books and they aren't worth very much. Certainly not $200.

  7. Haha! I hope you are enjoying reading them in the evenings now! I used to adore an encyclopedia that was in my grandmothers house when I was a kid. It is one of the things I saved when the family home was sold. It's fascinating now for historical reasons as it was printed in the 20s. Just sniffing its pages takes me back.


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