Robert Gray: 'Everything About Everything'

I don't think of myself as a nostalgic person, despite miraculously cobbling together a decent life through nearly seven decades on the planet. Yet recently I noticed a Guardian headline ("Final chapter for Pears' Cyclopaedia after 125 years in print") that opened a kind of reader/bookseller time portal and a just little nostalgia managed to creep through.

The piece reported that 120 years after Pears' Cyclopaedia made its first appearance in England, offering "A Mass of Curious and Useful Information about Things that everyone Ought to know in Commerce, History, Science, Religion, Literature and other Topics of Ordinary Conversation" for a shilling, Penguin had announced that the 2017-2018 edition would be the last.

The publisher attributed its decision to the retirement of longtime editor Dr. Chris Cook, as well as "the ready availability of electronic information [that] has made the printed reference book no longer commercially competitive.... Chris Cook has been editing Pears' Cyclopaedia for 40 years and we are incredibly grateful to him for the tireless work that has gone into making it a book of extraordinary longevity, durability and value. In the age of the Internet, Pears has continued to be a uniquely British almanac, reaching readers across generations. It is with great sadness that we stop publishing it as Dr. Cook retires but we celebrate his dedication and generosity over the past four decades."

The Bookseller cited Nielsen BookScan stats that revealed "volume sales of the work have sharply declined in recent years: the 2001/02 edition sold 24,229 copies whereas the 2016/17 edition sold only 2,854 copies."

I've never even seen a copy of Pears' Cyclopedia, which was first published in 1897 by Pears Soap as an advertising scheme, and contained "an English dictionary, a medical dictionary, a gazetteer and atlas, desk information and a compendium of general knowledge," the Guardian wrote.

So why did I care about this "Cyclopedia," which hasn't been connected to Pears Soap since 1960? I like to think of myself a 21st century guy. I haven't bought a print world almanac or movie guide or encyclopedia or even a dictionary for a long, long time. I regularly, if furtively, use Wikipedia. Near the end of my bookselling career more than a decade ago, I could see that print reference works had lost significant ground to online options. Remember the paperback Rand McNally Zip Code Finder?

Here's why I cared: There's a note in the final edition Pears' Cyclopaedia that says: "Many will miss the passing of a famous book that in its heyday had become not only a national institution but also the reliable pathway for successive generations of working-class families to a better education."

That Guardian article turned out to be a mnemonic, conjuring memories of the late Frank McCourt, author of the 1990s bestselling memoir Angela's Ashes. I was one of the lucky booksellers who happened to read an ARC of Angela's Ashes in the spring of 1996 and knew immediately, after a dozen pages, that we had to do whatever we could to get this writer I'd never heard of to our bookstore for a reading. I don't know if we were among the first bookshops to put in an event request, but we were lucky enough to be successful. By early fall, as word-of-mouth momentum began to build for the memoir and bestsellerdom loomed, everybody wanted Frank. We got him.

On my desk as I write this is a first edition of McCourt's book, with an inscription:

4 Dec. 96
For Bob
Frank McCourt
With thanks for your warmth.

Maybe Frank signed everybody's book with the same words. I don't care. On a cold night in a quaint Vermont tavern 20 years ago, I introduced him to a couple hundred people who were as enthusiastic as any audience I've ever seen at a reading. The pub atmosphere helped a bit, no doubt. Moments earlier, as I escorted him through the packed crowd to an improvised podium, people had applauded, shaken his hand and patted him on the back. Frank laughed and said: "I'm not even running for office." Introducing him was like introducing a rock star. I could have said, "qua, qua, qua," and they would still have applauded wildly as soon as I ended with, "Please welcome Frank McCourt." His reading was perfect. Afterward, he signed for a long line of fans and was an absolute pro, engaging each person in a brief conversation while his hands reached toward me for the next book.

Now that is pure nostalgia, though the Guardian article was also a mnemonic for something else--a particularly evocative sentence in Angela's Ashes. McCourt is recounting a singular boyhood moment that is at once ordinary and extraordinary: "There are bars of Pears soap and a thick book called Pears' Encyclopedia, which keeps me up day and night because it tells you everything about everything and that's all I want to know."

Everything about everything.

Reflecting on his retirement as Pears' Cyclopedia editor, Dr. Cook said: "I've had a very large amount of mail over time, from all over the world--I am grateful to those who have been contributors through letters informing me of things they think should be in the next edition of Pears.... I'll find it difficult to not reach for a notepad and pen to write things down to include in the next edition, every time I read a newspaper."

That's all I want to know.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)
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