The dollar and fifty cents I invested a few days ago in a used 1948 edition of The Reader’s Encyclopedia has already paid big dividends. The book, edited by William Rose Benét, contains 1,242 pages of information about literature and the arts, set forth in short entries that are fascinating and easy to digest. My plan is to read at least one page a day, and for the next three-plus years to savor items such as the following gem, found on the very first page:

abalone. A univalve mollusk concerning which the California poet George Sterling composed a famous song that is now a part of American folklore. When pounded, shredded, and cooked, it makes a gourmet’s dish. The first stanza of Sterling’s song goes,

In Carmel Bay, the people say,
We feed the Lazzaroni
On caramels and cockleshells
And hunks of abalone.

Sinclair Lewis added several stanzas to the original song, one of which runs,

He wanders free beside the sea
Where every crab’s a crony.
He flaps his wings and madly sings,
The plaintive abalone.

Indeed, the book contains such an impressive array of useful knowledge that I immediately recognized it as the education I’ve always needed, but didn’t know how to pursue. I’ve only read four pages thus far, yet I feel confident in a way I didn’t know was possible. I’ve also noticed that my writing has taken on a new sparkle, and that I am able to turn even the most casual conversation into a fun, memorable event. The only drawback is, I have been bringing up quite a few words and subjects that begin with the letter A. Absalom, Absalom. (See Faulkner, William.) Still, who wouldn’t want to know that in medieval demonology, Abigor is the Grand Duke of Hell, or that Fanny Abington was an English character actress with David Garrick at the Drury Lane (1764-1782), and that she created the part of Lady Teazle (1777), or that the field of Norwegian philology was dramatically enriched by the groundbreaking work of Ivar Andreas Aasen, who made from various dialects a Norwegian literary language called New Norwegian or Landsmaal in contrast to the Dano-Norwegian Rigsmaal? No one I can think of, except, perhaps, a few narrow-minded specialists sadly unaware that The Absentee is a novel by Maria Edgeworth (1812), in which the “Absentee,” Lord Clonbrony, allows his foolish wife to persuade him to leave his estate in Ireland and try to force a way into fashionable London society. I feel sorry for people like that — not for the Clonbronys, but for people content to wallow in their puny, standardized forms of brilliance. Actually, I feel sorry for the Clonbronys as well, for they, too, would have benefitted from a book like The Reader’s Encyclopedia, not to mention Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s earlier similar works, A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and The Reader’s Handbook, especially since Brewer was born in 1810 and by all indications was quite a guy.

Also by William Michaelian

Winter Poems

ISBN: 978-0-9796599-0-4
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
ISBN: 978-0-9796599-1-1
80 pages. Paper.
Cosmopsis Books
San Francisco

Signed copies available

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