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