My A-Z of Reading: K is for Knowledge

November 25, 2016

knowledge_magazine_and_encyclopaedia_issue_1A little knowledge (well, actually it was learning, but that won’t fit so neatly with my subject) is a dangerous thing, said someone, once, long ago.

Part works are a curious publishing phenomenon, a great way of tying you in to buying something every week for a long time, and thereby ensuring a regular income stream; nowadays all sorts of utterly bonkers things are on offer, usually in that dead ‘nobody has much money left’ after-Christmas period, but when I was young it was all sorts of good and wholesome things like encyclopaedias and history books that built up week-by-week.

Knowledge was one of those magazines; it was carefully designed so that it would built up into a proper encyclopaedia for children over a period of four years: it eventually built up into eighteen volumes (for which you could, of course, buy hideous, cheap and crappy binders) each with a table of contents and an index; you removed the outer cover, and then all the pages were sequentially numbered as in a proper book; the covers could also be bound up into another quick reference work. The magazine was evidently pretty successful, as it ran through four editions. My parents bought it for me – two shillings, later half-a-crown a week.

I’ve found myself thinking about these encyclopaedias quite a bit lately; I need to finish binding them all properly, about fifty years after I acquired and read them all, and now that I have a grandson, I’ve wondered vaguely whether he may one day enjoy looking at them…

Although it was apparently an Italian invention, Knowledge was clearly modelled on Arthur Mee’s famous Children’s Encyclopaedia of the nineteen-thirties, a ten-volume compilation of all sorts of knowledge, puzzles and patriotism that is still to be found in secondhand bookshops and at jumble sales even today. We had it in the classroom in whatever was Year 6 back then, and I devoured it… good wholesome stuff that instilled in me the intellectual curiosity that’s driven me ever since.

The clever thing about Knowledge was that, although encyclopaedic in its scope, it didn’t present material in alphabetical order, which would have been a sure-fire way to turn any child off. Instead, a range of the various branches of knowledge were visited in each magazine, in articles of from one to three pages, all illustrated in colour – a bit of a novelty at the time – not photographs but drawings and painted illustrations, the point being that they brought the topic to life and livened up the pages. But the text was detailed, continuous prose: a topic was covered in decent depth. I felt I’d learned something when I finished an article.

Reading the magazines helped me in several ways. I got a broad picture of all the different areas of knowledge, and I gradually came to see which areas interested me and appealed to me more than others: history, geography, astronomy in particular. And then gradually, over time, I could see how lots of different and separate ideas started to link together. Usually I would read each magazine from cover to cover as soon as I got it, and then later I would go through them again and concentrate on the articles which I found especially interesting.

So began my introduction to the wide world of knowledge and understanding. It was money well-spent by my parents; my dad started binding the magazines properly for me, and I learned bookbinding along the way, but he never finished the task. I’ve still got all the books and magazines and will be returning to them, and finishing off the binding along the way…

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