My first encyclopedia

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One of my favorite books as a kid was “Knaurs Jugend Lexikon” from 1984, an encyclopedia created with younger readers in mind. I don’t remember where I got it from, or how old I was - under ten, definitively, maybe just seven or eight.

I remember very fondly reading it.

A lot.

I first used it to look up things I was interested in. Ancient Egypt. Mars. The Neanderthals. Brač, the island my parents are from. I think I remember it had no entry on it at all, which was a disappointment. But we also had a real ten volume encyclopedia for adults at home. In it, there was one entry on Brač, with half a dozen lines, so I was reassured about the importance of my origin.

But it became clear to me, that just poking into the encyclopedia about whatever interests me won’t be enough. There was so much more in that book, so much more knowledge in the world, and if I only read what interested me I would never know about it. Most of the things that didn’t interest me suddenly became extremely interesting once I learned a bit about them. Did you know that Giraffes use their head like a club? That the letter A used to be the symbol for a bull? That the Chinese emperor had sent an envoy to the Roman Caesar?

There was only one solution to the problem. I had to read the whole encyclopedia. I have read other books before! Admitted, none of them had this many pages, and none of them were written in such a small script, but still.

I started reading it. I started at A. One page. Two pages. Three pages. Most articles where just a paragraph long, just a sentence or two. Occasionally, an article was a bit longer, but most were quite short. Which meant I progressed rather quickly.

But it didn’t work. I could not remember a thing. My head was filled with weird facts that just floated there. When I picked it up the next day, I have almost forgotten everything. This didn’t work. I needed a different system.

So I started again, at the first article. The articles has little arrows in front of some ⇾words. These were crude predecessors of links, it said “look it up for more information”. So instead of reading from the first page to the last, I decided I would still start at the beginning - but whenever there was a reference to another article, I would follow it. If that entry also had references, I would follow these too. Suddenly, what I was reading made sense. It was the first time I encountered the power of the link, the idea that so many things are connected. Instead of reading random factoids, I was reading ideas within their context. I was starting to gain understanding.

Soon I ran into other logistic problems. Which articles have I already read? Once I finished an article and it had no references, where did I go back to? So I started to come up with solutions. Every time I started reading an article, I made a little circle around it. So it was marked, and I didn’t run into cycles. Every time I finished reading an article, I know put a little cross into the circle I made previously. This also meant I have read all the articles referenced from this article (Yes, I was a kid writing into my books. I still do that today).

I also had a piece of paper that I used as a bookmark. As soon as I was reading a reference, I checked whether I had already started reading that article (i.e., did it have a circle?). If not, I wrote down the article where I found the reference, and started reading the new article. Once I read an article without any references that I haven’t started before, I just looked at the bottom of the list and went back to that article. When I finished the last referenced article on that one, I crossed it off the list, and went another step back, until I had crossed the first article off my list. After that, I continued with the next article in alphabetic order, which took me to a completely new journey again.

It sounds like a rather quick procedure, but it took forever to finish the first article. It was, unsurprisingly, the article about the letter ⇾A. It was quite short - just three or four lines, really - but it pointed to ⇾alphabet. And alphabet pointed to the ⇾Phoenicians and the ⇾Sumerians. And sometimes it seemed endless. The list kept growing and growing, and in the beginning it was rare to be able to cross of an article on my list. But then, suddenly, the list started collapsing, and I could cross of six, seven entries out at once. All the references have been visited.

When the bookmark was full, I took the next paper. I copied over all articles that were not crossed out yet. This was often a rather short list. I developed short-hand notations for the list. Ways to keep track of reading the encyclopedia.

It took me many months to finish the first page. But then something miraculous happened. The further I went into the book, the more I had already read. The second page did take a long time, but not as long as the first. The third one was much faster. And the further I looked, the more and more articles were already marked with the little circle and cross. And more often than not, the articles I have not read yet did not have any references that I haven’t read yet. My list became very short, so short I stopped using them. Eventually also, the articles became boring. What was left after I worked through the first few large networks of articles were the entries about small cities, not so famous kings and bishops, and one or the other species. I started skimming through the book quicker, looking for the few juicy bits I have missed. I had really enjoyed the book, and it was hard to admit that it was time to move on.

Many years later I stumbled upon a rather new Website with a fascinating idea: an encyclopedia where everyone could write and contribute to. As usual, I checked whether there was an article for Brač. Like in my youth’s encyclopedia, there wasn’t. But this time, I clicked [Edit] and started writing it - my first edit to Wikipedia, more than 12 years ago.