Friday, 14 September 2012

The Book of Knowledge: Sue Purkiss

I was interested to read Lynda Waterhouse's post yesterday about getting rid of sentences which are treasured but unnecessary. It struck a chord - not because I am editing at the moment, but because I have been driving around for some months - yes, months - with a boot full of blue encyclopaedias.

I saw them again yesterday, when I opened the boot to put some shopping in. I've been away for a while, so I'd forgotten they were there, and they eyed me reproachfully. What are we doing here? they demanded. Is this any way to treat The Book of Knowledge?

When I was a child, not that long after they invented the wheel, we didn't have many books in our house. My dad loved reading but hated waste, and it seemed to him a waste of money to buy books. He borrowed them from the library, and he made an exception for reference books, and in later years he loved to receive books as gifts, but my sister and I didn't have many books to read as small children. This may have been an advantage: Mum bought us a few Ladybird books, and because we read the same few over and over again, we learned them by heart, and I'm sure that's how it was that I could read before I went to school.

Once I had access to libraries, that was fine. But in the meantime, The Book of Knowledge was what I had to fall back on. It was - is - a set of dusty blue encyclopaedias, published by the Waverley Book Company. Here's the title page, where it declares itself to be: A Library on every Subject, simply and accurately written, and Illustrated by a wealth of Pictures never before attempted. Together with an Easy Reference Fact-Index and a Series of delightful Study Outlines. (I have to admit I have no recollection of the 'delightful Study Outlines'.) I picked one volume out of the boot at random, and, looking through it, I see that it has stories and extracts from books as well as factual entries. I still remember some of the stories I read there: King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid... well, that's the only one, actually, but I'm sure there must be others.

It doesn't say anywhere when it was printed, but the caption to this picture tells you that it must have been published between the wars: Three happy Croatian girls in the chief city of Hungary. Their native country, which has seen many changes, formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire before the World-War, but is now included in the new state of Jugo-Slavia. So it was already thirty or so years old when I first saw it: (I don't know whether it came from grandparents or maybe even from a jumble sale.) There's a jolly little entry under 'Calculating Machines': These wonderful little machines add, subtract, multiply, divide, and perform other mathematical operations that make them most useful wherever figures are constantly dealt with on a large scale. There are machines for every need...  Who'd have thought it, eh?

So it's massively out of date. My parents handed it on years ago during a clear-out; sentimentally, I didn't want to throw it out, so it sat in a cupboard for years. Then my son wanted the cupboard space, so had a clear-out in turn. Strangely, he couldn't quite bear to throw it out either, so he piled all the volumes one on top of the other and used it as a bed-side table. Finally, with the threat of more books arriving from my mother-in-law's house, I decided the time had come. The Book of Knowledge must go.

And it did. Into my boot. But no further. And now, looking through it for the purposes of this post... well, there's all sorts of interesting stuff in it. Look, there's even ancient dried flowers - it's a positive treasure house!

What do you do with old books? I don't have a problem with new ones - unless I think I'll read them again, I recycle them pretty quickly now, to charity shops usually. It's the old ones. It just seems so- well, mean, somehow, to take them to the dump. Ungrateful. What do you think?


Lynda Waterhouse said...

Words I can cut but getting rid of books is hard. Maybe you could immortalise the book in a story? It would make a cracking title for a novel.

Nick Green said...

I'm pretty sure I had those, or something like them. Well, my grandma had them, and I used to read them as a child. As a result I know heaps of fascinating facts, such as that Saturn's rings are made of hundred of moons (they aren't) and that the earth formed from a piece that broke off the sun (it didn't) and so on and so forth...

Learning about what people didn't know back then is almost as fascinating as learning what we do know now. I wonder how much of what we do know now will seem as ridiculous in 50 years' time?

As for what to do with those books - what about a museum of the smaller variety? For instance, there's the Toy Museum at Stanstead Mountfitchet castle near me, which both exhibits and sells many wonderfully fusty old books and children's annuals. A few Books of Knowledge on their shelves would be snapped up by a buyer in no time.

Moira Butterfield said...

I collect vintage children's books for their visual value, and sometimes share scans of them on Twitter and Facebook for the enjoyment of other like-minded vintage-hounds. These sound like a wonderful treasure trove of material! Don't throw them away. A young art student would probably value them highly, or your young relatives. But if you decide to send them to a charity shop, tell me which one!

Sue Purkiss said...

You're right, Nick - it's like travelling back in time to see the world through the eyes of people in the 20s/30s. Refreshing and slightly disorientating.

Sue Purkiss said...

Moira - I really meant to throw them away, but after looking through just the one volume for this post, I've found so many things I want to look at - so I won't. But where to put them...?

madwippitt said...

I still have my treasured copy of A Wonderland of Knowledge, Volume 1 - similar I suspect to yours but bound in red. It belonged to my Mum when she was a girl, and I spent many happy hours reading through the seemingly higgeldy piggeldy topics - as well as factual things there were short moral tales and Aesops Fables - and the most wonderful illustrations and photos. If anyone has a copy of Volume 2 they want to flog to me cheaply to save it from being flung out, let me know!
Some books are keepers no matter how archaic the information they may contain!

Moira Butterfield said...

You could scan the images you like best, print them out and display them, or make them into really nice personal cards. Then, while the books themselves are safely stored on your bookshelf, their contents will be liberated! Unfortunately, many dealers slice illustrations out of such books and sell them as individual prints. That makes me very unhappy!