Tuesday, 7 December 2010

False Friends

Penguin Australia announced yesterday that the world's first Encyclopedia Britannica was published on 6th December, 1768. This reminded me that I'd seen an exhibition about encyclopedias at the State Library of Victoria last time I was there. On display was Diderot's encyclopedia, (not the one he had, but the one he made, clever fellow.) Apparently, Diderot described it as an attempt to collect together all the knowledge then available, so that people could consult it easily. As the exhibition helpfully pointed out, this is now called the internet, which means that encyclopedias are due for extinction round about - ooh, look, they're gone.

And the disappearance of encyclopedias, it seems to me, can only be a good thing. In my limited experience, they bring nothing but grief and misery into a household. This certainly was what happened when my brother was about five years old.

It all began a few weeks before Christmas, when my parents asked my brother what he wanted as a Christmas gift. Without hesitation he answered: 'An encyclopedia, please, mummy and daddy.' 'Are you sure?' they asked him, dazzled by his precocity. 'Oh yes,' he piped up confidently, 'and, if you could get rid of that rat-like infant who you say is my sister, that would be jolly nice as well.' (I just added that last bit in to get audience sympathy, to be honest.)

My parents, already intoxicated by the way the little chap had breezed through the whole learning-to-read thing, rushed off to the bookshop and bought the biggest and best encyclopedia they could find. They wrapped it up in bright shiny paper and on the big day they handed it over, anticipation and pleasure sparkling in their eyes.

Imagine their surprise then, when they watched my brother open the package and saw his chubby little face fall instead of breaking into a joyous grin. He turned the thing over and opened it and closed it.  'Thank you so much, mummy and daddy,' he managed to say, bravely, but they could see he was gulping back a deep and painful sense of disappointment. 'Is there a problem?', our mother asked him eventually, 'is the encyclopedia that we got you not the right kind?' 'No, mother, it's simply lovely," my brother answered, politely, 'it's only I was hoping for an encyclopedia that I could sit on.' 'An encyclopedia that you could sit on?' 'Yes, one I could sit on, with wheels and handlebars and a basket and, if possible, a really noisy bell.'


  1. Oh dear ... poor bro! And, poor parents. All that pride dashed in a sentence!

  2. He was cute - still not bad really. And the parents hopes were only temporarily dashed - he went on to make them proud in many different ways.