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facts & arguments

NEAL CRESSWELL/The Globe and Mail

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I am stuck in front of a row of sagging book spines on a bottom shelf. They've sat untouched for years: 18 reddish-orange volumes of Our Wonderful World, An Encyclopedic Anthology for the Entire Family, published in 1957.

I'm in the midst of one of those virtuous home projects: a day of decluttering. The musty pages contain mostly defunct information – yet I can't bring myself to throw them out. Just a glance at the faded gold titles takes me back to the childhood experience of expanding my world beyond the neighbourhood where I grew up.

In the pre-Google era, books offered the answers to many questions. If you wanted to research anything foreign or scientific for a school project, you put on your shoes and walked to the library. If you wanted to explore the world beyond the little suburban house where you lived, you sprawled on the couch on a rainy afternoon and pored over page after glorious page of Our Wonderful World.

Volume 5, page 4: "We live at the bottom of an ocean of air, which in many ways is like another ocean of water. The weight of the hundreds of miles of air upon our bodies can be compared to the weight of the ocean water upon fish who live in the depths of the sea."

In 2004, A. J. Jacobs, an Ivy League graduate and magazine editor, published a book about his quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. He documented his quixotic feat in The New York Times bestseller The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. It was an intellectual enterprise, a reflection on knowledge by someone already immersed in the world of letters.

In 1962, J. W. Baxter, a high-school graduate and salesclerk at Mitchell Photo Supply in Montreal, wanted to nurture a quest for knowledge in his three young daughters, including me. In our modest bungalow in Pierrefonds, there was little reading material beyond the evening paper, Reader's Digest and a few Nancy Drew mysteries. Dad decided we needed an encyclopedia set.

One Sunday morning he asked me, the eldest, to go downtown with him to pick up a present from a work colleague: a second-hand set of encyclopedias called Our Wonderful World. I was thrilled. A car ride beyond my neighbourhood was a major outing, and time alone with Dad was precious.

The store's bookkeeper, Eunice, lived in an old apartment on Sherbrooke Street, right in the heart of the city. Dad referred to her as a "spinster" from a well-to-do family. The word sounded regal to my nine-year-old ears. I put on my best Sunday dress, clipped my hair back with barrettes, and listened to his gentle reminders about good manners when visiting.

I remember sitting stiffly on the edge of Eunice's blue brocade chesterfield, keeping my hands nestled in my lap and gazing with awe at the strange surroundings of that downtown world. The high ceilings, the curlicue legs of the antique tables, and the swirls on the pastel patterned rugs were all so different from the brown wall-to-wall and chunky shapes of our living room.

I knew we were getting something special, and that these volumes would reveal things I hadn't yet imagined. I felt a burst of love for my dad for taking me along on this city adventure, and for thinking I was smart enough to read an encyclopedia.

Volume 15, page 109: "No true frog has the poison glands, or parotoids, found on the shoulders of true toads."

Our Wonderful World came with its own compact, two-shelf bookcase. Dad told me that photos of us, his three daughters, inspired the gift from Eunice. Perhaps this childless woman had yearned for some small connection to those family scenes of smiling innocence: three little sisters in ruffled bathing suits standing ankle-deep in a lake; three little sisters in homemade, red-velvet Christmas dresses perched on a bench; and, after receiving her gift, three little sisters in ballet tights posed with pointed toes before a small bookcase of encyclopedias. Three little dreamers ready to leap into the air.

Those books were mesmerizing. They were not staid reference tools like Britannica, Colliers or World Book. Our Wonderful World was aimed at a junior audience, with volumes organized by theme. Many section titles sounded more like names of stories than factual summaries. "Plants That Have Travelled." "Pirates and Outlaws." "Music From the Sea." A more exciting world than mine beckoned from those pages.

Volume 18, page XII: "if you are interested in what is beneath the surface – about those things which shaped Our Wonderful World into its present form, here is the story."

There I sat decades ago, absorbed for hours in joyful discovery, the world expanding before me. Here I am now, trying to winnow a lifetime's accumulations down to essentials.

What should I do with this outdated compendium of simplified facts?

I think of my father and the decision is easy. I move on to another bookcase and an old university textbook: Introduction to Educational Psychology, 1975. Maybe I'll be able to part with this one.

Karen Zey lives in Pointe-Claire, Que.