The Chronicle Review

Remembering a Golden Age of Reading

January 29, 2012

Remember that scene in Amélie? Our heroine finds a forgotten box of toys hidden in her Paris apartment's bathroom wall and seeks out its former owner. Finally she learns his identity. She leaves the toys in a phone booth and calls him there as he walks by. Miraculously, he goes into the booth, cautiously picks up the phone, sees the box, and discovers a time machine: his lost youth returned.

I felt like this fortunate character when I rediscovered the children's encyclopedia that I had read every day as a child. It turned out to have been the bridge between my childhood play and adult work.

Every time I return to my hometown of Crossville, Tenn., I visit a modest used bookstore called the Book Cellar. A few years ago, I saw there a matched set of tall hardbacks in the front window; they looked oddly familiar and drew me across the room. As I knelt down before the low window shelf, the shock of recognition was like meeting my child self in a dream. I was looking at several volumes of The Golden Treasury of Knowledge. This series was published in the late 1950s and early 60s by Golden Press, which also created the pocket-size Golden Nature Guides that introduced me to the world outside the window.

Finding these volumes again was like having Amélie plant my childhood toys for me to discover. No, it was like finding the key to the Secret Garden and discovering that, although I am an adult outside the wall, within it I am still a child. From an early age, I felt safe in the garden of books, where I could quietly discover everything at my own pace. I grew up in eastern Tennessee, cavorting in the woods, playing Cherokee by trying to walk silently through oak leaves. When earaches and sore throats kept me out of nearby Homestead School, I would sprawl on the living-room sofa, lost in The Golden Treasury of Knowledge.

I read storybooks, of course, from A Brown Puppy and a Falling Star through Sea Pup and the buckram-bound copies of Jim Kjelgaard's animal stories such as Big Red. But I was always drawn to nonfiction as well, especially about nature. I learned empathy for other living creatures by going outdoors with a field guide to mammals in one hand and a copy of Robert Lawson's novel Rabbit Hill in the other. One told me about real rabbits, while the other suggested that rabbits want the same things we want—to sleep in a safe place, to eat dinner in peace. Reading such books felt like chatting at the grocery store with people my mother knew. The books introduced the animals to me: These are your neighbors; now you can be friends. My missionary Baptist upbringing did not encourage me to feel at one with nature. These books did. Empathy is an act of imagination.

So in the Book Cellar that day, I bought those books and found that my hands remembered the texture of the stiff pages. My nose remembered their scent. These aren't the same volumes that we owned, but they're composed of the same pulp, glue, ink, and binding thread. Their dusty aroma conjures a cheap little one-story house on Highland Lane in the semirural Homestead community. It's early on a winter evening in about 1968. I'm lying on an oval braided rug in the living room, browsing The Golden Treasury in front of a TV showing Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in black and white, with my younger brother, David, on the sofa behind me.

As these books inspired vivid memories, I recalled a moment in Swann's Way, shortly after Proust's narrator famously talks about how a madeleine began his process of reclaiming memories. "I find the Celtic belief very reasonable," he says, "that the souls of those we have lost are held captive in some inferior creature, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, effectively lost to us until the day, which for many never comes, when we happen to pass close to the tree, come into possession of the object that is their prison. Then they quiver, they call out to us, and as soon as we have recognized them, the spell is broken."

Like Proust, I now believe with pagan zeal in a book's ability to hoard another's experience and voice, and its willingness to wait with mythological patience. I had been a writer for years when I rediscovered the tree in which was held captive the boy who wanted to grow up to be a writer.

The encyclopedia isn't arranged alphabetically or by subject. It seems to have been structured to emphasize for the young reader not the order that we try to impose on the universe, but instead its infinite variety. This is where science and art meet, in celebrating the splendor of creation. All-embracing curiosity is poetry, communion, a way of facing the universe with humility and joy. It's an attitude present in many of the great scientists—Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall—and in The Golden Treasury of Knowledge.

The very title of the series still moves me: It promises the cosmos and insists that learning is a kind of wealth. Many revelations in these pages nourished my 9-year-old mind. "The surface of the Earth that is not water is rock," begins the entry entitled "Pebbles," which follows "Asia—The Biggest Continent," and precedes "Moles—Underground Engineers."

The mole article may have been my introduction to what became a favorite feature of this kind of book: cutaway diagrams, which I found both visually entertaining and intellectually stimulating. The illustration, covering most of a page, shows the subway system of a mole, her private boulevards and cul-de-sacs, a shrub root like a conduit across her path, overhead the looming proximity of a radish in the earth ceiling. I saw molehills in the yard every day and frequently glimpsed a mole or discovered the corpse of one. This illustration made their private lives real to me.

"Molehills are the only above-ground evidence," the article begins, "of complete networks of tunnels and rooms beneath the ground in many places." Rooms. Yes, the illustration shows a master bedroom at the center of the burrow, where four baby moles sprawl like hippies atop their grassy bed. I remember this picture. Because of it, thrilled with the realization that the floor of my world was the roof of theirs, I would stand barefoot in the grass and imagine that I could feel the vibration of moles' footsteps in their hallways beneath my feet. On spring mornings, as I sprawled in my own bed, I would hear a squirrel scutter across the roof and dreamily imagine that he was the human boy and I the baby mole secure in the earth. I had forgotten this science-inspired daydreaming until I reopened Volume 1. As I write this, I also recall a diagram of how light refracts—cattails cut off at the waist, their one leg reappearing to the side, like sawn halves of a magician's assistant.

The entries in these books are usually two or three pages long. The illustrations are quaint, their color reproduction antique. The first mini-article in Volume 1 establishes a big-picture approach. It's titled "The Universe." Childhood is not a time for specialists. The varied chapter headings parade by: "On Earth Millions of Years Ago," "The Study of Insects," "Lightning," "Domestic Cats," "Marie and Pierre Curie," "Hares and Rabbits," "Petroleum and Its Uses," "Weather Stations," "The First Vaccination," "Fireflies." In other volumes of The Golden Treasury, you can find such topics as the way the eye works, the physics of sound, our ability to stand upright, and the similarities between our bones and hair and muscles and those of other creatures.

As I looked through these books again, I realized that my original hazy mental image of many subjects came from this source—pictures in my mind that are so old they seem primordial. I discovered that, as I wrote my various books about natural history, I was returning to my first encounters with these topics. Like a novelist, I was writing my way back home. Sometimes, while looking at these encyclopedias now, I forget for a moment whether I'm a man recalling his past or a child divining his future.

We don't need Proust to tell us that memories connect in unforeseen ways. In my mind there is a scene, distilled from many afternoons browsing these wonderful books amid the family routine. Mom disappears into the kitchen, from which comes the aroma of meatloaf and corn bread. I settle on the rug in front of the TV and pick up Volume 2, with its evocative cover painting of a congregation of sharks and mantas swimming spotlighted under a bathyscaphe. I wander into a survey of Ethiopia until Mom yells that supper is ready. Somehow, as I close Volume 2, other activities surrounding my reading of these books—the mournful whistling that opens Lassie, the food and the steamed windows and David on the sofa with a glass of tea whose ice cubes clink—somehow these memories spiral down into the books, like the genie returning to her bottle in another of my childhood TV programs. They stay there, preserved among paintings and diagrams: a cuttlefish's three hearts, Caesar's army in Britain, how levees work.

My memories wait. They don't come out for other people who open these books over the years. They don't come out for the woman at the Book Cellar who buys the books and places them in the window. They wait until one day, when I glimpse The Golden Treasury of Knowledge in the bookstore window and walk over and touch the books, and then they quiver and the spell is broken.

Michael Sims is author, most recently, of The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic (Walker and Co., 2011). He is writing a book about the young Henry David Thoreau.