In 1952, when I was three, my parents bought a set of The Book of Knowledge, ten hefty volumes bound in maroon leather, each filled with questions from “The Department of Wonder.” Like sentinels posted at the gates of wisdom, the books stood proudly on a shelf between the glossy forelocks of equestrian bookends, each volume embossed with a golden torch. It was, my mother explained in one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to my grandmother, a purchase as much for her as for her boy: “I have really been enjoying it. I’ve been studying the subjects of music and art so far.” Reading in The Book of Knowledge was one of the ways she fended off the depression that swept over her during these years, especially when my father traveled. “That is how I’ve been spending some of my evening while Max is away.”
The Book of Knowledge evolved from The Children’s Encyclopædia, the inspiration of Arthur Mee, born to a working-class family in Stapleford, England, whose formal education ended when he was fourteen. Questions posed by Mee’s daughter, Marjorie, were the direct inspiration for the encyclopedia. In his letter “To Boys and Girls Everywhere,” published in the first volume of The Children’s Encyclopædia, Mee writes that Marjorie’s mind was filled with “the great wonder of the Earth. What does the world [End Page 1] mean? And why am I here? Where are all the people who have been and gone? Where does the rose come from? Who holds the stars up? What is it that seems to talk to me when the world is dark and still?” Mee’s wife had “thought and thought” about these questions “and answered this and answered that until she could answer no more. Oh for a book that will answer all the questions!” she complained. The Children’s Encyclopædia was born.
What set his book apart, Mee explained, was the belief in children’s eagerness for knowledge and their capacity for wonder. But he knew that his book also filled an important gap for adults. It “had the power to make plain to the average man, woman, and child the aspects and imports of the problems which the very men who had wrested them from nature could not make so plain.” It offered up the mysteries of the few for the rest of us. By the time The Children’s Encyclopædia had evolved into The Book of Knowledge, Mee had added the “Department of Wonder,” and each volume contained sections devoted to “wonder questions” like the ones Marjorie posed to her perplexed parents.
For my mother, who had dropped out of nursing school when she was nineteen to marry my father, the gaps in her education were becoming an embarrassment. Born Roberta Maxine Reinhardt and called Bobbie, she had been the darling of her parents and of the small Kansas town of Glen Elder where she grew up. Pretty and bright, she made nearly perfect grades but not without help. “As I remember I used to make A on every theme you wrote for me,” she mentioned in one letter to my grandmother. A little unsure of herself when she entered nursing school in 1946, she created elaborate study schedules, but soon she found that she was good at school and liked her classes, which included American literature as well as courses in child guidance, microbiology, the history of nursing, nursing arts, physical education, home economics, and something called “the Home Project.” As she pursued her studies she became more confident: “I’m so thrilled about my subjects. There is an awfully lot of reading to do, but it is interesting.” Anxieties about how hard the classes would be proved unfounded and she flourished in the program. “I’ve been wondering how I would like my nursing subjects—it is play to study them.” [End Page 2]
After marrying, that confidence in her abilities slowly eroded, especially when my father joined the pharmaceutical company American Cyanamid as a managing director and our young family moved from Dodge City, Kansas, to Nanuet, New York, a suburb of...