The Book of Knowledge

I am lucky enough to have had the opportunity to know two of my great grandmothers. In fact, my great grandmother Vaccaro (GGV) passed away when I was in my third year of college. GGV was a character, for sure. She'd grown up in relative affluence on an olive farm in Italy (her family had servants!) but raising eight children here in America during the depression taught her the value of thrift. On Sunday afternoons we'd go to visit her in her rambling yellow house on Gifford Street. The cousins would play while the adults talked, propelled by a seemingly endless supply of chocolate stars and, later on, popcorn popped on her enormous old stove that took up an entire wall. Amazingly, in all my visits there I was never in the backyard (where chickens may or may not have lived, depending on who you ask) and I was only upstairs once. GGV was devoutly religious, and one of the most truly generous people I've ever met. On holidays the cousins would each receive a half-dollar coin hand sewn into a little square of plastic, and she regularly sent a shipment of homemade prune-filled biscuits to our house after I made the mistake of saying I liked them, which was a complete lie, but I ate every one as it seemed that not eating them would have been an even bigger offense. But GGV also gave me two larger gifts: my desk, and the Book of Knowledge. I knew something was up when we drove over to Gifford Street on a weekday, and as we pulled to the curb I saw a giant brown... thing... on the sidewalk that was apparently my new desk. I was thrilled even if it was just about the ugliest thing I'd ever seen. It was enormous and rickety, painted an awful chocolate brown and with doors held together by giant staples, but after my mom took a furniture refinishing course with my desk as her project (we refer to this period as her stripper days) it was transformed into a beautiful piece of fine furniture. But it's the Book of Knowledge that is the real topic of this post. The Book of Knowledge is one of my most prized possessions yet I can't remember when or where GGV gave it to me. So what is the Book of Knowledge, anyway? It's a 22 volume children's encyclopedia set published by the Grolier Society. My set, published in 1942, is an updated version of the set from 1937. The most noticable feature of the Book of Knowledge is that it doesn't follow the standard reference format. Alphabetical order? Forget it. Each of the 22 volumes has entries in the following categories: Earth Science, Plants, Animals, Familiar Things, Literature, Fine Arts, the United States, Other Nations, Stories, Poems, Famous Men and Women. There are also questions and puzzles and riddles interspersed throughout. The second most noticable feature is that it abandons the detached, neutral attitude of most reference materials. A biography of an artist might include a harsh judgement of his work, or high praise. It sounds a lot like propaganda to modern ears, and yet the Book of Knowledge remains strangely neutral on then-current figures like Hitler and Stalin, mentioning them without so much as a hint of judgment. It's almost creepy. My favorite features are the scientific explanations of phenomena that the passing time has proven wrong, and the beautiful photos of architecture that sadly no longer exists, particularly in Europe.

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