Number 100 in my list of books is actually a set of books--the Encyclopedia Americana, in 30 volumes, 1947 Edition. Am I strange, or what? My parents, God bless them, were great believers in encyclopedias. We had at least three sets I can remember in our house during my school years. The Americana set was probably our first one, and being the hoarder that I am, I still have it. Yes, I know it's ancient and out of date, but I don't read it to find up-to-date stuff. I began reading it about 35 years ago, mining its words for ideas to use in stories I was writing at the time. I decided, back then, to read the entire 30 volumes. I longed to be able to store all of the information in the encyclopedias inside my head. Alas. My brain was not cooperative. Instead, I took notes as I read, and still have the files I started, covering everything from astronomy to weapons--lots of good stuff every person should know about.
I'm currently in Volume XVI, Jefferson through Latin. How interesting. The third listed Jefferson is Thomas, a hero of mine, and in junior high I took Latin I and II. I was never accomplished in the language, but I not only still have my textbooks, I've had a lifelong love for all things Roman. In my list of 100 books there are two, Caesar's War Commentaries and Working IX to V, that have Roman themes.
And while it may sound impressive that I'm in Volume 16, this doesn't mean I read from 1 to 16. I skipped around. I've actually only gone through 1,11, 14, 18, 25, and 26. Six of them. My studies pale to those of A. J. Jacobs, who not only read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, he wrote a book about it, and though he praised himself rather highly for my tastes, the boy probably made a mint. That's the story of my life--put in the work and someone else does the same thing and makes a mint. I guess you could say A. J. Jacobs ticks me off, which isn't fair, of course. I'm the one who didn't see the potential of reading an encyclopedia all the way through. Oh, well.
Jacobs, who is called, or calls himself, among other things, "the know-it-all, a humble, self-deprecating man, a disarming man, a son of a brilliant attorney, an hilarious, enlightening man," etcetera ad nausea. He claims he read the whole blessed thing, from A to Z. Good for him.
In his writings about his trip through the pages of the encyclopedia, Jacobs seems preoccupied with getting his wife pregnant, proving to his father that he's not a ne'er-do-well, and cross-eyed women. Not me. I take prodigious notes, and file them away. My file drawer with notes from the Americana is filled with eccentric people, Greek history, literature, myths, Roman battles, and all sorts of weird stuff that appeals to me. I'll give you some examples. The ancients believed that hyenas changed sex every year and could imitate the human voice. An apotropaic eye is the painting of an eye or eyes as a symbol to ward off evil. The Greeks used them on "eye cups" as they drank wine, to keep spirits from entering their mouths. A Dane named Finsen discovered a method of curing lupus and tuberculosis of the skin with light rays. It's claimed he cured smallpox by installing red curtains on sickroom windows. How come I never learned any of this stuff in school? If I had, I could be sitting here drinking wine out of cup with eyes all over it, staring out of my red-curtained windows, instead of diagramming each of these sentences before I let them be published. Okay, okay--I don't diagram sentences. I really hated doing it in school, however. The teacher could have been teaching me about hyenas and Finsen's violet lights.
Anyway, there you have my number 100--an ancient set of encyclopedias that I'll never, in this lifetime, finish reading. But, oh, the joy they bring me. I'll paint eyes on my wine glasses and hang red curtains at my windows. Let Jacobs make his millions with his book about reading the encyclopedia. When that small voice outside the bedroom window in the darkness of night calls out, "Help me. Help me," sounding like the tiny fly with a human's head in The Fly when he was caught in the spider web, Jacobs will probably step outside to investigate. Not me. I'll know it's a damned hyena. You see, even though my encyclopedia is ancient, I learned that a hyena has jaws so powerful, he can grind bones with ease. Crunch! Crunch! It won't be my bones he's grinding up. Thanks to the Encyclopedia Americana! Number 100! Way-to-go, encyclopedia!
As we move through my top 100 lists, I'll share what others have as their top books, movies, etc. For instance, Entertainment Weekly has The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, at their number 100. It's about overbearing Chinese mothers and their resentful daughters. Oh, boy--just my kind of reading. Sorry, I have not read it. Nor will I. My list is of books I loved to read the first time (I simply put most books down if they don't grab me by page 5), have read again and again (I still have almost every book on my list. Those missing I loaned out.), and plan to read again some day. Books like the Encyclopedia Americana. In fact, I just read an entry on the pirate, William Kidd. It seems there was some booty missing when he was hanged. Many believe it's hidden on Long Island Sound or along the banks of the Hudson River. Anyone up for a treasure hunt? Or would you rather read about fighting mothers and daughters? Not me. I've seen enough of that in real life. Don't need to go there in a book. How about you?
Some other picks for Number 100 are: The Magnificent Ambersons (Modern Library--Board), The Satanic Verses (Modern Library--Readers), The Orchard: The Bostan of Saadi of Shiraz (the World Library), and The Death of the Heart (Time Magazine). If you wish to peruse these books, have at them. Me? I'll stick to the Americana. My advice? Sure, e-books are the coming thing, but if you come across an old, out-dated set of encyclopedias for a small sum, make the investment and start reading. You'll have a blast. For years. And if you want to irritate me, write a book about it. I dare you.
Next--my Number 100 best TV show ever! Admit it--this is the most fun you've had in years!