Goodbye to an Old Friend


I am smiling in this photo, an automatic response when facing a camera, but I’m actually  sad.

Out the door on an April morning.

In my arms I am holding several volumes of the 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, leather bound, gold trim, embossed spine. I bought this set in 1980, using royalty money from the publication of my first book, as proof to myself that I was a real writer who would need this fines set of reference books to support my career.



My then partner and I had recently remodeled the attic in our two-story home, insulating and opening up space for me to have a truly elegant writing studio. It was large enough to do yoga or dance, had a desk positioned to face a window with a view of trees, and shelves for books, journals, and this gorgeous row of Encyclopedia. When sitting at my desk writing and in need of a reference, I would twirl around in my antique leather and oak desk chair and reach for whatever volume contained the answer to my quest and question.

The pages were thin, strong, felt good in my hands, and the first time a volume was opened, there was the smell of the leather releasing and the gold-leaf made a sound I can still hear in the inner chambers of my ears, though I can’t begin to put it into words: gold separating into thinner strands. I licked my finger tip, and partially dried it on the side of my thumb— a practiced hint of moisture to turn the pages searching for the reference in mind.

Sometimes my finger stopped or my gaze rested on interesting bits of information, biographies of the long dead, extraneous tidbits of knowledge that amused my attention. But eventually I found what I was looking for, took notes with a fountain pen on a paper tablet, and with a sigh of satisfaction turned back to my desk, to whatever evolution of computer sat humming there awaiting the next paragraph.

This is how “looking something up” worked before Internet, before Google, before the world changed with the unrelenting rapidity of endless and instant gratification of curiosity currently swirling around us.

Weighing over 40 pounds, I carted the 30 volumes (plus annual appendices) in boxes through six moves. In each new apartment or house, I set them out again—still a writer. Twenty years later, ensconced on Whidbey, with five books under my belt (yes, I know that’s a cliché) and even though the Internet was starting to take over the world, I loved my ritual of twirl, reach, thumb through, find, wander a bit in the vicinity of my destination, and return the book to the shelf and myself to my desktop word processor.

Then in 2007, working on Storycatcher, that ritual fell apart. I needed some information about Zimbabwe, and had to look up “Rhodesia, a colony of the British Empire.” I think this was the moment I tried Googling for the first time. Wow—who typed in all that information? How does it all get linked together? What’s an algorithm anyway.  (All things I’m still wondering.)

I looked sadly at my treasured Britannica. The volumes are beautiful and a huge amount of classical knowledge resides on the pages: certainly they deserved archiving.

In my first writer’s nook, I had made bookcases out of boards and cement blocks… why not make bookcases out of boards and encyclopedias? So, I bought several planks and stacked the books on their sides. Ahhh, preservation, respect, and practicality.

I wrote on, happily accompanied by the knowledge that knowledge was in the room with me as well as on-line. I missed the twirl of the chair, the reach and feel of paper and gold leaf, but at least I still had the Random House Dictionary of the English Language to comfort me in old routines.

Until last week.

We are in a season of simplifying. We’ve sent books to the library for resale, carted unused household items and clothes to the thrift store. We traded out furniture, welcoming a shipment from Ann’s mother’s apartment, selling and giving away what we had. And then we painted the room. The walls that had sheltered the bookshelves now looked so beautiful in their emptiness. What to do with a nearly 40-year old edition of encyclopedias?

I put an ad in the “for sale, wanted, and free” section of our local swap-list: Free to Good Home. A woman called immediately. She’s an upcycle artist, works in mixed media, would love the books. Two days later she came with banker’s boxes and a van. Her first comment was, “Oh my, these are beautiful… I’m a former librarian, I don’t know that I’ll be able to change them…” I watched her getting the feel of her new treasure, running her hands over the embossed leather, stroking the gold edging, fingering the delicate paper.

I smiled with an armload and she took my photo. They will be in good hands. And I will cozy up and write, held in the arms of my mother-in-law’s favorite chair, making new paragraphs in the place where the bookshelf was.


19 replies
  1. Cynthia Orange
    Cynthia Orange says:

    This resonated with me this morning, Christina. We have an entire set of Great Books and Great Ideas from Michael’s parents’ house upstairs. I look at the gorgeous volumes of great writers and thinkers and move the boxes from attic to closet, wondering what do to with them, knowing in my heart of heart it’s time to let them go. I went through a similar tug-of-the heart when we carted all the issues we had saved of National Geographic to a book seller, only to be told that people just don’t want them anymore. Sigh. This simplifying is complicated business! xoxo

  2. Jeanne Petrick
    Jeanne Petrick says:

    Being of the “Britannica” generation as well, I know of what you write, detail by detail – the sound, the smell, the touch, the information! Thanks for sharing your story which blossomed so many great memories. Time does have to march on, but for as long as I live, my brain will be holding these great memories. Thanks, Christina! (May you not miss your friends too too much.)

  3. Betty Till
    Betty Till says:

    Hi Christina,
    I so remember giving away the family “World Book” encyclopedia. They held such fond memories of sitting around the dining room table doing my homework, sensing my mom looking over my shoulder and learning at the same time that I was. We too are in the process of simplifying, letting go of the physical but holding on to the memories.

  4. Sheila Kiscaden
    Sheila Kiscaden says:

    Aaahhh….letting go….and with gratitude for the journey and what has been learned along the way. It seems to be an essential aspect of this stage of life.

    Sending warm greetings and gratitude to you, Ann and Sarah.

  5. Julie Pigott
    Julie Pigott says:

    I can smell our childhood set, hear the creak of new pages opening. My folks bought the big sized volume, and all of us poured over those pages. My 90 year old mom still occasionally pulls out a volume. Thanks for the sweet memories.

  6. Catherine Wilson
    Catherine Wilson says:

    Thank you, Christina, for this story from your heart. Reminded me of the feel of flipping through card catalogues in a quiet library. I recently bought a hardcover copy of the Oxford American Writers Thesaurus, and there is a feeling of “roots” when I haul it onto my desk and look things up. I’m with you 🙂

  7. Barbara Stahura
    Barbara Stahura says:

    Lovely story, Christina! I never had the Britannica set but when I was a kid, my family was able afford the Golden Book Encyclopedia, bought one book at a time at the grocery store. I read them all, cover to cover, ready to explore the world they held as much as possible.

  8. Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler says:

    You are brave, intrepid friend; wandering boldly where so many dare not go. I have been sad that in spite of so much my mother kept, she got rid of the World Book set she earned for the family by selling them door-to-door in the mid-fifties. I especially loved the layered transparent pages of the human body. Can that be duplicated on the internet? I poured over the annual volume when it arrived, including the pages devoted to JFK and his camelot and death. I loved your bookshelf re-use of the Britannica. And, there comes a time. Well done.

  9. Judy Todd
    Judy Todd says:

    What a beautiful tribute to such beloveds…the books, the hours of ‘findings’, the memory of all those trees who gave themselves to craft and carry all those words on their paper bodies, and the people along the margins of the tale! I love your gift of the deeper discoveries and how I open to your writings. Thanks a million times and pages, Christina.

  10. Diane Tilstra
    Diane Tilstra says:

    Wonderful story that reminded me of the 3rd grade (1955) when I would cart the Brittanica edition with the transparent overlays of the human body out to the playground at lunchtime to read and discuss with a small group of classmates. We would talk about reproductive body parts like a mini sex ed class learning how to pronounce the names of things. We thought we were the “cool kids!” A set of Brittanica occupied a shelf in our humble home on the farm in eastern Washington. I read them all. Good old friends. Thanks for another great story!

  11. Cynthia Trowbridge
    Cynthia Trowbridge says:

    Oh yes, this truly resonates. I remember in the mid eighties, we were a family, therefore we needed a set of encyclopedias. In 1989, David joined Microsoft’s first multimedia team to create Encarta. We knew, even with David’s science inter-activities, this could never replace our much loved and used volumes. Not until our move to Whidbey in 2006 were we able to part with these volumes. None of our children were willing to take them to college.

  12. Martha Vennes
    Martha Vennes says:

    Ahhh, encyclopedias. I treasure my memories of using them in school, and then purchasing a set of my own in my early twenties. The set moved with me at least 4 times and now the memory of what happened to them is lost. I enjoy both the immediate gratification of the internet search and holding a book in my hands. I hope there will always be a choice of “googling” or looking up something in a book.
    Also, a random note about National Geographic. I love that magazine. So much knowledge, such a good reference. Specifically, one of my family treasures for more than 30 years is the issue that featured a story about my father. I have gradually let go of other issues but I will always keep that one for my grand-daughter.
    Thank you for this story.

  13. Bonnie Rae
    Bonnie Rae says:

    The thing I most remember about the set we had growing up was the scent too. The leather, the ink … the way rifling through the pages would lift that distinct smell into the air. Having those books made me a better writer. I would read the sentences aloud and then put them into my own words. I may not have always done it well, but it taught me to process and describe information in a way that helped me understand it. The covers were red and took on a musty smell after years in a damp room. I can conjure that scent even now. Thanks for reminding me. 

  14. Dot Everhart
    Dot Everhart says:

    I remember as if it were yesterday when the salesman came to our home and sold a set to my parents in the 1950’s. They were housed on the landing of the steps going upstairs. I often would while away the hours on weekends or summertime, reading articles and following the chains to other articles in the See Also lists at the end of the article. I took the whole set in their bookcase with me when I graduated from graduate school and went to my first job as a local United Methodist pastor. They moved with me from there to five successive homes. Eventually, they found there way to the library sale and probably to a landfill when everyone decided the Internet was a better resource and so much more portable. Yes, a sad parting. But one which passed fairly quickly because they had served me so well and had been replaced by the Internet. Kindred spirits, we who were so lucky to have “owned” such beautiful books full of so much knowledge. Thanks for the remembrance.

  15. Barbi Byers
    Barbi Byers says:

    You’ve created a bond among us all. My Encyclopedia Britannica 1980 will likely find a new home in 2020.
    P.S. Christina, I’d like your mailing address for Elizabeth Shippee in St. Paul!


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