“A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors”*…
There are dead encyclopedias lurking everywhere, in basements and garbage dumps and church sales, because the publishing industry had such success at selling them to Americans in the 20th century. At their 18th-century Enlightenment origins, encyclopedias were for the educated elite. In the United States, historian Ann Katherine Johnson writes, reference books like encyclopedias and dictionaries began the 19th century as a luxury good—“tools for a relative few”—and exited as “mass-produced books designed ‘for the people.’ ” By the 20th century, in North America, encyclopedias had become a middle-class social tradition.
“Through most of the twentieth century, as many as 90 percent of American encyclopedias were sold door to door,” writes Jack Lynch in his book You Could Look It Up. Encyclopedia salespeople became so common as to be the butt of some pretty good jokes. But their pitch—“If you want to get ahead, you’ll invest in a set”—hit on some serious anxieties. “They were selling not books but a lifestyle, a future, a promise of social mobility,” Lynch writes. “You are holding your family’s future in your hands right now,” a 1961 ad for World Book, featuring a feminine hand grasping an order form, promised.
The advent of the home personal computer, and then the internet, killed the print encyclopedia dead. Why does this feel like such a tragedy to me? Encyclopedias were full of ideology, but pretended to be neutral; as proponents of the Wikipedia model point out, there is some advantage to the way we perceive authority now, as a distributed, ever-evolving web of edits and updates, performed by self-appointed experts who should be trusted only so far and no further. Yet my sense of nostalgia persists.
Artists Brian Dettmer and Guy Laramée tap these feelings in their work. Dettmer explodes encyclopedias, ransacking their interiors for illustrations and scattered words, putting them on display in new configurations. When you look at the resulting pieces, you recover some of that feeling of endless browsing, catching your eye on one image, then another; in fleeting impressions, you get a sense of the kind of world the encyclopedia portrayed. Laramée, on the other hand, approaches the books as objects, leaving them closed and monolithic, their art and words lost to the viewer. Sculpted into landscapes, they transcend their form, becoming something totally new…
More examples of Dettmer’s and Laramée’s work, and Rebecca Onion’s interview with them at “How Two Artists Turn Old Encyclopedias Into Beautiful, Melancholy Art.”
* Charles Baudelaire
As we look it up, we might that it was on this date in 1897 that Karl Elsener patented a pen knife with a large blade, a second smaller cutting blade, a corkscrew, and wood fiber grips, which he called the Officer’s and Sports Knife. Six years earlier Elsener had produced the second knife requisitioned by the Swiss Army, the first to be produced in Switzerland. That knife– the Soldier Knife— was issued to officers and soldiers as a rifle maintenance tool (it also had a can-opener for ration tins). This original model was issued for almost 60 years, until 1951, with only small updates. With the addition of the Officer’s and Sports Knife, Elsenser launched his company, Victorinox, into pocket knife production for the general public, and created the “prepared for anything” category we’ve come to know as Swiss Army Knives.