Love Letter to an Encyclopedia

[Note: Mostly just for me, about my own personal memories and introspection.]

Ten years ago the wife and I moved from a one-room-and-bath student apartment to an actual house, and suddenly we had a lot more space. When I went back to my childhood home to get all the stuff that’d been waiting for me since I left I asked my mother if I could have something from her bookcase. It was a five-volume visual encyclopedia called Combi Visuell.

I guess fake leather tends to dry out and crack over several decades, especially when the books are used a lot. And they were. I think I cracked them open for the first time at ten years old or thereabouts, or maybe it was as early as seven or eight. When I grew up it was just me and mom at home, and we spent our evenings watching TV together. This was before smartphones and laptops, so when I wanted supplementary stimulation at my end of the sofa we sat in for hours each night, as family entertainment shows and cozy British murder mysteries took only part of my attention, I picked a volume of Combi Visuell from the shelf. Maybe A-Fj today? Or Mu-Sp?

It wasn’t a conventional encyclopedia with lots of short articles on tightly delineated topics arranged alphabetically. Instead it had whole sections dedicated to broad topics, like “cars”, “music”, “Christianity”, “mining”, “chemistry”, “justice”, “the Earth”, “glass”, “sociology”, or “cities”. Each section was between 4 and 16 pages long and discussed its topic from several perspectives including scientific, technical, cultural, historical, social, and psychological — often mixing many on a single page.

Its nonlinear graphic design invited a scattered, buffet-like reading style. There was a main text running through each topic and each spread, but I never focused on it. I don’t even have memories of reading it at all. I just looked at the pictures and read the captions. The drawings were pretty and varied, whether they were of berries, battleships, medieval mines, scary deep-sea fish, or the inside of the human stomach.

I enjoyed the conceptual pictures the most, however. There were so many visual presentations of ideas, models and categorization systems. They weren’t just appendages to the text; they were the primary way in which information was presented. While there was text, the real meat was all the pictures. I think mostly in visual terms and this was like machine-code I could plug right into my brain: much more than a collection of facts it was pieces of ready-made mental infrastructure.

Sections would start with an extremely compressed overview that gave you a simple schema through which to absorb and index more detailed information later. For example, look at these five “c”-spreads, on color, class, comics, catholicism, and commerce. They’re not overly flashy, but they’re well-designed and effective at giving you an idea of the space available to explore.

I’ve always preferred to learn things this way and have often been frustrated in school and at university when they would go through things in sequence, one thing after another, instead of giving us the big picture first and then fill in and elaborate. I don’t know if I liked this encyclopedia so much because of how it was organized, or if reading it so much at an impressionable age trained me to expect information to be presented this way.

Maps are typical examples of information that works well with “zooming” in and out to study things at different levels of detail. Not surprisingly I absolutely love maps, and there were a lot of them.

The books are from 1970. They were old when I first read them and are of course even older now. For example, the section on “datamaskin” (“computing machine”) is more a charming piece of history than useful information about computers at this point.

Its advanced age is noticable in other ways too. If you happen to forget that you’re reading a 50-year-old book, an 8-page section on Negrer (“negroes”) will certainly remind you. There’s isn’t anything particularly objectionable about the section’s contents, per se (mostly history of colonialism and such) and the text does start with an admission that the group in question “have for so long been a devalued and oppressed group of peoples that the term itself has acquired a derogatory connotation. It is however difficult to find a different word that covers the same group”. But the choice to have a section under that heading at all, and a text clearly written for an audience expected to include no “negroes” feels quite out of place today.

1970’s gonna 1970.

Apart from a few examples like these, and some vaguer stylistic anachronisms like a modernistic “the bright world of tomorrow!” vibe in a few places, the books do hold up remarkably well.

Tell me what I like and make me who I am

I’ve realized lately how much these books determined the things I was into as a kid. Besides maps I think I love writing systems (and the “aesthetics of information” in general) in part because of being exposed to this:

Cuneiform is cool, kids.

There was a phase around age 10 when I was obsessed with precious gems and crystals. I made facsimilies with colored paper and scavenged glass prisms from grandma’s old chandelier. I remeber the rush when I finally correctly put together an icosahedron of green craft paper that I pretended was a giant emerald.

And of course there was space. There were many sections on space-related topics. Besides Space itself there was one on rocketry, one on stars, one on planets, one on the moon, one on the Earth, one on astronomy, one on “The Universe”, etc.

As you can see, ten-year-old me was unusually well-educated on the life cycle of stars. Also, many charts and illustrations had the purpose of making you understand the immense scale of space: the sizes of stars and planets, solar systems and galaxies, and the universe as a whole.

That picture on the left made a big impression on me and I think this all inculcated a strong sense of scale in space, which is now, 25 years later, responsible for me getting unreasonably irritated when people who write space fiction show obvious signs of not having a strong intuition for the scale of solar systems and galaxies, and distances between things in space compared to the speed of light. Fudging a bit is fine, but obviously having no feel for it is not. To me it’s very basic knowledge, among the first non-everyday things I learned about, and I guess I subconsciously expect it to be the same for others.

Oh and while I’m at it: don’t call things “intergalactic” just because they’re in space. Does it involve more than one galaxy? DOES IT? Galaxies are vast.

I also suspect all the pictures of atoms and molecules and chemical bonds and structures helped me get good grades in chemistry later on. Like with space, these pictures created an intuition for matter.

It wasn’t all about hard science. I’m a STEM-type culturally and temperamentally but I’ve always been just as into social science and the humanities. A systemizing approach to presenting them was key to getting me interested, and some of my favorite sections were on art, society, religion, language, psychology, music, design, and political philosophy.

Not just political philosophy, to be honest. All philosophy. The philosophy section had 12 pages — 6 spreads — and it covered all the big philosophical territories in those pages: knowledge, morality, politics, life, and logical reasoning.

I recently finished Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy and while it had a lot in it I didn’t know of course, it still confirmed that my big picture view of philosophical history was correct. But I don’t remember exactly where that big picture really comes from. Did I get it from studying history of ideas back at uni? Yes but that built on what was already there, just like my later course in 20th century philosophy of science did. Sophie’s World gave me many of those basics 20 years ago, but even that wasn’t all new at the time. No, the broad strokes of philosophical history is like the solar system: knowledge that feels built into me. I can’t remember a time or a self before it, and when I feel like that, I realize that this is often where it comes from.

Perfect compression, enhanced by repetition

There’s an art to summarizing a topic or field succinctly and communicating it attractively and memorably. An orientation course of at most 16 pages has to be harshly, severely simplified, and I think they got as much as they could out of those pages. They delivered what they were supposed to: very rough sketches to be further elaborated on later — or kept as a sufficiently detailed placeholder if you just wanted to be somewhat literate on a topic.

It’s quite an achievement to produce this approximately 1500-page work — with many thousands of pictures and input from I don’t know how many subject-matter experts — and still manage to get it so consistent in presentation, tone and look. It’s a lot more demanding than a regular encyclopedia or a single-subject textbook. And it always felt to me like the perfect combination of both: it’s an encyclopedia, as in “everything there is to know”, and a textbook as in “pedagogical introduction to a topic”. You can call it a textbook in the discipline of, ahem, Everything Studies. It’s an entire education in five volumes. I loved it and I love it.

Of course it uses its signature style to explain itself, in the introduction, as a condensation of pop-nonfiction books, themselves condensations of technical literature.

My fondness is in large part due to childhood nostalgia, but I do think these represent an approach that was, at least in 1970, rare and innovative (although I didn’t understand that as a child). Today we’re better at this and there are more books that are similarly accessible and visually appealing. However, they’re often aimed specifically at kids and too cutesy and superficial to appeal to adults. This old classic was at a perfect level, suitable for precocius children like me but also sober and challenging enough to not be pure kid stuff. This level of technical detail about film production and engines, for example, is probably a little dry for most ten-year-olds:

Part of the reason my memories are so strong is that I read or looked through them so many times that they grew familiar. There are 56 pictures in this post and most of them (and hundreds of others that aren’t included here) feel like dear old friends. I don’t read like that any more. We have access to so much nowadays and nothing feels worthy of reading dozens of times the way the one best thing in mom’s bookcase was in the 1990’s. It’s ironic because part of me understands that it’s only by doing that you develop a strong relationship to something, and that relationship makes it feel worthy. It’s just like real friendships, which are also harder to grow as an adult when you don’t have hours every day to socialize.

We should value repetition higher, because things do keep giving if you come back to them. I watch science shows with my daughter and she’s in her prime repetition-heavy years. While I admit I would never do so on my own I’ve watched documentaries about Cheddar man and a new dig in Pompeii at least ten times each with her and I notice that not only am I not bored, I learn more and better every time. There’s this idea we have as adults that novelty is better and repetition is a waste, but that’s wrong. We underestimate its benefits enormously, both for learning and making things feel important to us.

A generalist’s skeleton

I genuinely think these books are partly responsible my generalism, in giving me some basic foundations for knowing what fields of knowledge exist and their main contents. I understand that even now in adulthood, topics and fields I lack a clear idea of corresponds to what I didn’t find in Combi Visuell back in the day.

Well, yeah. Isn’t there a risk you think this encyclopedia is so great exactly because it’s played such foundational role in your own general knowledge bank? In your mind whatever it says is correct and perfectly in tune with how to best represent knowledge because so much of the architecture of your own mind was directly built from its contents? This gushing is just personal bias talking.

Yes, sure. Now shut up. How much hard-nosed problematization do you expect from something called a “love letter”?

I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if I learned as much from this as I did from school. I certainly have more vivid memories of it than I have from any school materials. More often than not my understanding of some concept traces back to some early visual memory of a chart, model or timeline in Combi Visuell. Types of measurement error! The states of matter? Reasoning by induction. Skirt lengths and economic prosperity? Seasons! How about types of skin blemishes, and naval warfare? Ptolemaic vs. Copernican cosmology? I’ll take two!

I’ve always had an easy time learning things, and that ease seems to me dependent on having a framework in place to contextualize, index, and cross-reference new pieces of knowledge. I didn’t learn everything from Combi Visuell, but having internalized so much of it meant that typical “school facts” like dates and names would stick because they were familiar or connected to something that were. At a certain density such a system of interconnected pieces of knowledge becomes self-stabilizing and self-reinforcing. I might even be so bold as to say it makes it harder to be very wrong about stuff.

Yes, sitting by the TV all those evenings with my nose in these books gave me a thin but solid skeleton of general knowledge that could be fleshed out and elaborated on from that point onward as I needed and wanted. Thank you for that, Combi Visuell.

Love you!

• • •

2 thoughts on “Love Letter to an Encyclopedia

  1. I’m jealous! I only ever had the ‘visual pop-non-fiction’ collection of books and not something like your lovely encyclopedia.

    I feel lucky in ‘naturally wanting’ to enjoy some works repetitively. I think, if anything, I’m more resistant to even trying some works because I _don’t_ expect to enjoy (or even appreciate) them more than once.

    Liked by 1 person

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