“Go Look it Up!”

Behind my dad was a book case he and I had built and on the bottom shelf were the 20 some volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia. Back in the day, encyclopedia salesmen went door-to-door in the post-war suburban neighborhoods, pretty certain the people behind those doors wanted the best for their kids, “Better than we had, that’s for damned sure.” My folks didn’t spring for the fancy white binding, but got the red library binding instead. *”Who cares how it looks on the shelf?” said my dad. “It’s what’s inside a book that matters.”

They had some pretty cool features like clear plastic (?) pages that you could lay one on top of the other and see continental drift — that kind of thing. I spent hours with it on the floor “looking it up.”

Fast forward, Boulder, Colorado, 1974. Fresh out of college, BA in English, married (shudder), employed by Head Ski for the Christmas production rush then laid off. Shit. I was the breadwinner. Not cool and very scary. Scanning The Daily Camera (which didn’t employ me because I couldn’t type fast enough) for job openings. Ah, here’s one. Publishing company. Call for an interview. A few hours later, sunny December day, I’m on Pearl Street, tromping up 20 some stairs, stairs right out of a Bukowski poem, complete with the bare light bulb hanging above the top landing. Knock on the door. There’s another young person — a guy — waiting. I sit down. “Hi.” “Hi.” We eye the competition.

Man in a cheap tan suit comes out, cigarette in his hand, and beckons us into his office — together??? We take seats facing his desk. He begins to explain that we will be going door-to-door selling educational materials. In very oblique language (which I don’t totally get, being a very weak aural learner) he explains the nature of the educational material. Suddenly the “competition” stops him. In the lilting tones of Flushing, NY, he says, “So, you want us to go door-to-door selling pornographic encyclopedias?”


The “competition” takes my hand. “C’mon. Let’s get outta’ heah.” We ran down the stairs and into the bright afternoon, still unemployed, but also not pushing pornography on unsuspecting parents. What?

Fast forward, 1992. My best friends are adolescent boys who live in my “hood,” a whole gang of them (5). We’ve spent all day at the BMX jumps working on our movie, then one of them, Jimmy, says, “Martha, can you help me with a report for school?”

“What’s it about?” He tells me.

I look at my watch. We have an hour before the library at San Diego State closes, and we’re only a few minutes away. “Sure.” I think of all the encyclopedias in the reference section. We park and run across the campus. We have 45 minutes.

These boys’ lives have never imagined a university. One of them even said once, “You’re just like us, Martha, even though you’re a lady, and you’re smart, and you work at a university.” That’s a compare/contrast essay I would LOVE to read. So, there you go. I was just like them even though I’m a lady, I’m smart and worked at a university. Fact is, I agree with that. I never had a group of friends with whom I felt so comfortable and authentic. Go figure.

As fast as I can, I teach them to use an encyclopedia and they — in all their post-bike riding afternoon blood and dust fall on the books in wonderment. Jimmy takes notes on the little papers left on the desks for writing down call numbers. He uses the stubby little pencils that go with the scraps of paper. It’s all we have.

A librarian, seeing us, comes over with a troubled expression. “Can I help you?”

I smile and say, “My son has a report for school.” She nods and hovers, but never bothers us again. A voice comes over the loudspeaker “The library will close in 10 minutes.”

“You about done, Jimmy?”

“Yeah, mom.

*Looking online for a photo of these books, I find they sell for $200 on Etsy as “shelf decor.”

24 thoughts on ““Go Look it Up!”

  1. So many layers to love here, MAK. “You’re just like us even though you’re smart and work at the university.” I can smell those encyclopedias! Thank you for sharing! 🤍💛🤗

  2. Wow! You had encyclopedias! I envied kids who had encyclopedias in their homes! Or, if it was the Britannica, it was “encyclopaedia”. Okay, I admit, we had an encyclopedia; but it was from the 1930s so it wasn’t very reliable for things like countries and borders. I don’t remember what brand it was – not World Book, Britannica, or Funk & Wagnall’s. Better was the matched set of Sinclair Lewis novels – also from the 30s.

  3. Wow! I don’t think kids us paper encyclopedias any more. At least they didn’t when I was subbing. They had a “computer class” twice a week thought.

    When I was a kid, we had three different sets of encyclopedias. One was the Britannica, from 1956, which made it as old as I was. Still considered a valid reference when I was a teenager. There was another smaller set in a blue binding that I can’t remember the name of from about 1950 – wasn’t the World Book. And another even smaller set printed on cheap paper from the late 40s, the American Educator Encyclopedia, IIRC.

    Mom had a thing for books. I think she was shocked by the German book burnings in WWII. We did not get along but she did consider books nearly sacred. We had a big library for a poor, rural homestead. Most of my friends had no home library at all.

    There was also an Encyclopedia of Science and a Webster’s Dictionary and they were really quite good. Both were huge, about a thousand pages. You’d go to a particular grocery store and every month they’d have another hundred pages or so for $1.99 and Dad was conscientious about getting them.

    A new section coming out would be a red-letter day. You’d take them home and put them in a binder. It was one way to make sure interested customers would come back regularly.

    • I hung out with those kids back in the early 90s. The library still used a card file catalog at that point, too.

      None of those boys had books at home at all. Like you growing up, I guess, they were all poor, single mom, too many siblings, lots of long sad stories.

      There was an encyclopedia at the supermarket when I was a kid — The Golden Book Encyclopedia. It was a really pretty set, lots of colored pictures, academically geared to 3rd graders.

  4. what a wonderful story! And introducing those kids to encyclopedias and looking things up…. how great is that? And I love them inducting you into the club. “Mom.”

    • There was a note of irony in Jimmy’s voice. We’d had a run in with an off duty cop (long story) and the guy yelled at me what a lousy mother I was and how I needed to raise my kids better. It was easier to claim them as my kids than to explain “These aren’t my kids. They’re a bunch of random kids from my neighborhood.” Then people think you’re rescuing them and say things like, “It’s so generous of you.” It was an inexplicable friendship but I still know them though now they’re in their 40s with kids of their own. They’ve done pretty OK and I’m very proud of them. Sometimes our family finds us. ❤

              • Get them to write a version too…. would be fun to have different perspectives….

                • None of them really turned out to be writers though Jimmy did write a couple of paragraphs on my old Mac once. One about Metallica and the other about the BMX jumps. They’re kind of men of action types, selling tools, installing air conditioning, repairing cars. Deathless prose like, “The first time I heard Metallica I was the same age I’m at now.” I saved them.

                  • Heh. You could do it as an interview. I had a patient who needed to describe an event on paper and said he just couldn’t. I had him come in and I said, just talk and I will type it up. You will read and edit and then it will be done. This worked for him and got him past a really difficult block.

  5. We had Encyclopedia Britannica – the adult and children’s sets. I have them on my bookcase now. If we ever have a complete breakdown of civilization, I’m ready!

  6. Shelf decor! That’s a hoot. We had the Britannica version – it took up a whole long bookshelf and then more. My parents got the “update” volume every year. They couldn’t let go of them even when we all (5 kids) moved out and they moved. “So much money!” spent. I also remember the plastic sheets with the layers over maps. Great story – those boys were lucky to have you looking out for them. ❤️

  7. Martha, I love this! We had a set of Collier’s and yes, I can still smell them! The wonderful smell of knowledge. When my girls were young and would reply “I don’t know”, my response was always, “Well, know”! Thank you for sharing this post. Robyn

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