I actually still own a set of encyclopedias, Collier’s, which takes up more than a yard of my precious bookshelf space in my drafty garret/book depository. Judy Birdsong and I bought the set in 1983 from a traveling salesman in Rantowles when Judy was pregnant with Harrison.

I had grown up with the Encyclopedia Americana and its companion set for children, the Book of Knowledge, which I loved, not only for the magic tricks and entertaining scientific articles, but also for the images of naked female breasts sported by the likes of Aphrodite and La maja desnuda. The Book of Knowledge had abridged novels like Treasure Island and A Christmas Carol, plus children’s verse galore.  I see this evening it’s possible to purchase a complete 1952 [1] set for $250 from Amazon, which seems like a bargain.

I’m tempted, but no, there’s no room at the inn, as it were.

For the hell of it, from my Collier’s set, I’ve randomly pulled out “Volume 19, Phyfe to Reni.”

As it turns out, the first entry, “Duncan Phyfe“ [faif], was an 18th and 19th century American cabinetmaker.  Born in Scotland, Phyfe moved to New York City about 1783.

Not surprisingly, a hick from the Lowcountry of South Carolina, I  hadn’t heard of him.

In approximately, 350 words, the author of the entry, Donald D. Milliken, offers this rather faint praise of the cabinetmaker:

Phyfe was an adapter rather than an originator of furniture designs, but he did create a style.

Wikipedia’s entry, on the other hand, runs to almost a thousand words and provides a more glowing assessment:

Although he did not create any new furniture style, he interpreted fashionable European trends in a manner so distinguished and particular that he became a major spokesman for Neoclassicism in the United States, influencing a whole generation of American cabinetmakers.

Collier’s doesn’t mention the 1922 Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition of his work, the first ever for a cabinetmaker.

In addition, Wikipedia provides some fun facts to know and share.  For example, did you know Karl Shapiro in his poem “The Fly” refers to Phyfe? I remember this poem from my “Contemporary Poetry” course from 1973, but, of course, I didn’t bother looking up “Duncan-Phyfe.”

O hideous little bat, the size of snot,

With polyhedral eye and shabby clothes,

To populate the stinking cat you walk

The promontory of the dead man’s nose,

Climb with the fine leg of a Duncan-Phyfe

The smoking mountains of my food

And in a comic mood

In mid-air take to bed a wife.

F. Scott also drops Phyfe’s name in this passage from Tender is the Night:

She wept all over a set that cost a fortune, in a Duncan Phyfe dining-room […]

Homophonic Phyfe even shows up in a season one episode of Andy of Mayberry “A Plaque for Mayberry,” when Barney Fife claims Duncan as an ancestor.

A sofa of his can be found in the Green Room of the White House, and a replication of one of his chairs is “one of the world’s largest roadside attractions” in the furniture-making city of Thomasville, NC.

I admit, Collier’s possesses a bit of musty charm;  no doubt it is probably much more accurate than Wikipedia, but you can’t cut and paste from Collier’s. You got to type out the stilted prose yourself.

Very few are going to bother to do that nowadays, so maybe it makes sense to ditch the staid black and red bound beauties for a set of something else, like, say, the 1952 set of the Book of Knowledge. I can relearn some of those magic tricks and entertain my bar mates today and future neighbors at the assisted living home tomorrow.

the man himself

[1]Coincidentally, the year of my birth, way back in the Truman Administration.

2 thoughts on “Encyclopedias

  1. I never thought I’d say this, but I wish I could go back through my own adolescence in order to take your class in high school. I just remember always feeling tired in high school. I did smoke up the last year, but I mean before that. I just wish I had the chance to fully appreciate it.

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