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An Incomplete Education

September 12, 2016

While growing up in the fifties, we were by no means the poorest family on the block. Both of my parents worked, which was unusual at the time. My brother and I had the best of everything, but there was one area where our household was lacking—books.


My mother was a hardcore reader and always had her nose buried in historical biographies from the library, but in the home where I was raised there were no books lining the shelves. Books could be had for free from the library. Spending money on them was foolish.


One day while accompanying my dad to the grocery store, I spotted a promotional display of encyclopedias. I was immediately drawn to the colorful pictures and easy-to-read articles on the history of mankind. The series was called The Golden Book Encyclopedia. Book #1 (Aardvark to Army) was being offered for forty-nine cents, with subsequent volumes to follow. I picked up that first volume and put it in our shopping cart. My dad immediately removed it saying, “It isn’t on our shopping list.”


This went on for months. I’d put a volume in our cart and Dad or Mom would take it out. Other kids in the neighborhood, kids much less fortunate, managed to collect all sixteen volumes. I started checking under cushions for change and began buying volumes secretly, riding home on my bicycle with a pristine volume hidden beneath my jacket.





I’d just purchased Volume 8 (Hudson to Korea) when our grocery store stopped selling Golden Book Encyclopedia. My set remained incomplete; when I needed to do a school report on Abraham Lincoln I had to knock on a neighbor’s door and borrow Volume 9, the same with Volume 15 when I was researching volcanoes. Half the alphabet was beyond my reach.


A few years later the grocery store started selling The Home and High School Encyclopedia, for more mature readers. Not as colorful as the first encyclopedias, I nevertheless coveted a complete set, and even though these books were twice as expensive at a buck a piece, I was determined to have them all. Unfortunately, for reasons I can’t remember, this set also was never completed. To this day I feel uneasy when anyone asks me anything beyond the letter “L.”


After marrying and returning to the parental homestead for a visit, I noticed a set of Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedias on my parents’ bookshelf. “Where did those come from?” I asked.


My mother looked up from her library book and said, “They were selling them at the grocery store for $1.49 each.”


“Interesting,” I thought, noticing that the collection was complete. “Do you guys use them very often?”


My mother shook her head. “We got them because they look pretty on the shelf.”


I was tempted to pull down the “F” volume to search for my favorite swear word.


60 million copies of The Golden Book Encyclopedia were sold between 1959 and 1961. Do you remember them? Did you own a set?






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We had Compton's, and then some fast talker sold a set of Britannica, which also sent an updated book every year. I used them for many school research projects, always being careful to change around a few words so as to not be accused of plagiarism.
By: cranky on September 12, 2016
My parents ordered the Funk & Wagnalls enclyclopedia too (because it was cheap). They were truly terrible encylcopedias. There was a reason they were so affordable. I always admired Britannica at my library. That was something you could sink your teeth into. Alas...I think all of those old volumes are gone the way of the Dodo now. We rely upon the internet for our knowledge. This could be a bad thing if we ever lose power. We'll all wind up in the Stone Age.
By: Michael Offutt on September 12, 2016
The first encyclopedia my parents invested was a single volume Columbia Encyclopedia. Alas it did not have any pretty pictures, but certainly sufficed when it came time to do school reports -- even though the book was just about as heavy as I could manage! Years later my father, who had become a professional librarian, was to come upon 4 complete sets of the Encycopedia Britanica. All new -- one for each of his children. I cherished these volumes for quite a few years -- until I came to live in England. The volumes had been packed away and stored in the basement of my mother-in-law's apartment building in Washington, D.C. Sadly, the basement flooded and all my precious volumes were destroyed...
By: The Broad on September 12, 2016
We owned a set of the World Book Encyclopedia and I did use it for research. We were poor, but we always had books on the shelf.
By: Tabor on September 12, 2016
I remember in second grade I read a whole volume of the encyclopedia in the classroom. Of course now you can find all of that on Wikipedia.
By: PT Dilloway on September 12, 2016
Those were beyond my time, although we did have an adult set. Again, all on the Internet now.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on September 12, 2016
We were so lucky- not only did we have the World Book Encyclopedia with an annual updated volume- BUT we had the Britannica! There 5 of us kids around the dining room table and inevitably a discussion ( argument) would erupt and we'd be going and getting volumes out of our library ( that's what we called our living room) and would go through the books looking for the right answer! I'll bet CJ always had books and perhaps an encyclopedia?
By: Kathe W. on September 12, 2016
I don't think I could have made it through school without our encyclopedias!!
By: fishducky on September 12, 2016
We had a full set of them and a full set of Britannica. My father joined the Navy when he was 17 and didn't finish high school because of WW2. He felt bad about that, and wanted to catch up on his education. He'd buy us almost any educational item that we wanted.
By: Lisa on September 12, 2016
We had the complete World Book set and something for young researchers that I think was called Child Craft. I still have many of the books my mother gave me for Christmas. I remember my dad coming home from National Guard summer camp and giving me a book when I was very young. When my son was little, I found a copy of the same book. We still have it in case I end up with a grandchild. Books are to be loved and owned and used anytime we want them. My mother put a lot of emphasis on reading. It was probably the best thing she did for us. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on September 12, 2016
You had me laughing out loud at the need for volume F for your swear word.. We didn't have books but had access via the book mobile which I adored. Lucky kids today who have all the information they will ever need at the tap of a key.
By: Arkansas Patti on September 12, 2016
Some one in the family gave us an old set of Encyclopedias. What a magic volume they were! I could open to any page and be fascinated. I loved your line regarding going to the F book.
By: Tom Cochrun on September 12, 2016
We had a full set of Compton's. The only other books in our house were my paperbacks from the Scholastic Book Orders that got handed out at school every two weeks. My dad always gave me the couple of dollars I needed to buy two or three books.
By: Val on September 12, 2016
My parents were like yours. Why waste good money buying books when they were all available for free at the library? Fortunately, my mother took us to the library on a fairly regular basis, so we all eventually achieved literacy. Encyclopedia? Don't know what that is. Something to do with wikipedia?
By: Tom Sightings on September 12, 2016
We had a set of World Book Encyclopedias. They were next to the best at the time, right behind Encyclopedia Brittanica, which were WAY beyond my parents means. I felt fortunate to have what I did. :)
By: scott park on September 12, 2016
we had World Book set. i wore out dogs and horses pages.
By: TexWisGirl on September 12, 2016
We had something when I was a kid, can't remember the name of it, and it was fairly small and basic - maybe five volumes. My parents were the same as yours - why "waste" money on books? I wore out the encyclopedias we had, but my all-time favorite book was the world atlas. At one point, when I was a teenager, you could have asked me about any country in the world and I could have named its capital, the language(s) spoken there, its tallest mountain, etc. I still have my atlas from when I was in 5th grade - even though I realize that a whole bunch of borders have been rearranged by now.
By: Pixel Peeper on September 12, 2016
Many interesting sales gimics were used to sell encyclopedias. I think my Dad bought the world book for us.
By: red Kline on September 12, 2016
I was lucky enough to get the Art Linkletter's Picture Encyclopedia for Boys & Girls 18 Volume Set... one book at a time from the grocery store.
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 12, 2016
We had the Book Of Knowledge and The Encyclopedia Brittanica.
By: Ellen Abbott on September 13, 2016
This post rekindled memories for me. In the UK I recall 'Look & Learn' and 'Mind Alive' (the latter of which I did manage to gather the whole set. However, the only article I recall reading was in the art section: an illustrated history of the nude - strange that!
By: Bryan Jones on September 13, 2016
We had Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia but my pal, Dr. Jim (he didn't have the Dr. attached to his name until quite a few years later) had a set of Britannicas. I always envied him until 1976 when I bought the Bicentennial edition of the Britannicas.
By: Catalyst on September 13, 2016
Yes, Steve, as you know we had a set a gift from our Pan Am stewardess Aunt. She would bring us a volume or two every time we saw her. We read those things front to back and really enjoyed them. Sadly, when I moved to Missouri I had no room for them and even though Becky and I wanted to keep them for our grandkids, we had to give them to Goodwill, I think. Besides, kids can look all that stuff up on the internet now and learn twice as much stuff!!
By: Linda on September 13, 2016
I'm laughing because I can relate. That damn Funk & Wagnalls set lined our living room bookshelf, while I lusted after a full set (or just one) of the Golden Book. Those were the best.
By: Robyn Engel on September 13, 2016
We did have an Encyclopedia, or should I say my older brother did, and before the days of google it was a useful tool. I can't say I got excited about it though, being more of a music collector than a book collector.
By: LL Cool Joe on September 14, 2016
I do remember these and we had some but not all. I feel so bad for you as a kid who loves books and art, it must have been hard. I was so lucky to have parents who loved reading. My dad was taking out of school at grade 4 to help his dad sell Rolly's Good Health Products. He always hated that he didn't finish school and was an avid reader. My mom always made sure there were books under the Christmas tree. We had The Encyclopedia of Art which I loved to look through when I was as young as 4.
By: Birgit on September 14, 2016

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