“It is one thing to possess a book—another to use it.”
Encylopaedia Britannica,. 14th ed. Chicago: Encylopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1968.
Imperial 8vo. 24 volumes bound in white cream leather, gilt stamped 1768 and 1968 over a thistle. One volume index. Issued on the 200th anniversary of the Encylopaedia.
This was the only book I watched my father buy, and he did it with my mother, me, and my sister, in our living room. The year was 1968, and the Britannica was sold by door-to-door salesmen. The cost was high, our driveway was long, and our house was invisible from the road. Few people came to our door, and when they did, my father was exasperated. In 1968, a Britannica salesman rapped loudly, and persuaded my father that my intellectual development would be hurried by a massive and expensive encyclopedia. My father asked if the set would be “useful for schoolwork?” and I, not knowing exactly what to say, said “yes.” And so the deed was done.
The Encylopaedia Britannica arrived in one fell swoop, installed in my mother’s study (I did not have a bookshelf large enough), along with a lovely red-bound Britannica Junior Encyclopedia with accompanying cherry bookstand that was sent straight to my sister’s room. I was eleven, my sister nine. I probably did use the volumes to write a research paper in junior high school, but mainly the twenty-four volumes served as a material instantiation of who I was in my father’s eyes and who my father was in mine.
We donated the set, along with the maroon-colored annual yearbooks that arrived each year, exactly two decades after the initial purchase and one year before my father’s death, but the Encylopaedia retains an intense and inexpressible emotional value. It was the first time my father understood, and he understood it before I did, that books would be the most important material element in my life, as they had been for my mother, and so it was a weighted acknowledgement of difference and a lavish accommodation. I wish I still had the set.
Tan Lin is the author of over thirteen books, including Heath Course Pak (2012), Insomnia and the Aunt (2011), Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking (2010), and HEATH (plagiarism / outsource) (2007). His work has appeared in numerous periodicals and journals including Artforum, Cabinet, the New York Times Book Review, and Art in America.