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Home for the summer: I'll keep my books, thank you

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We have, in our dusty little cabin, a fairly large collection of old reference books. Three of these -- an American College Dictionary, a one-volume encyclopedia, and my mother's worn and tattered cross-word puzzle dictionary -- we brought from Illinois. The rest we've found here at library book sales and garage sales up and down the shore.

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The rest of our collection includes two general dictionaries, a pocket-sized crossword puzzle dictionary, a Minnesota atlas, the World Almanac of the U.S. A., the Encyclopedia of American History, Roget's College Thesaurus and Roget's Pocket Thesaurus. And then there's an imposing collection of fishing guides and identification books for birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, trees, wildflowers, etc. I guess we're suckers for reference books.

This trend started at home when the kids were growing up. Among the cookbooks (rarely opened) in the kitchen was a dictionary. We needed it close at hand to settle the discussions/arguments about the meaning or spelling of words. Then we added a single volume encyclopedia because one year around Christmas, bookstores remaindered the New Columbia Encyclopedia. The price was too good to be true; we bought one for ourselves and several as gifts for everyone we could think of. The year was (stop snickering) 1975.

Many things have changed since 1975, but much also remains the same. We can still check out Shakespeare's birthday, the capital of British Columbia, the history of the Panama Canal.

Quite a few years ago we started bringing a laptop computer to the cabin. We thought it would begin a whole new era. In a way it did. We could keep up with our email, but since our connection was dial-up, any surfing the internet for information was more or less impossible. If we were dying to know the meaning of, say, hubris, we still needed to consult a dusty reference book.

This summer is a brand new era. We can no longer get dial-up service for our lap-top. However, my husband, Les, has an iPhone, and our Verizon phone service works at the cabin. The phone is either in his pocket or in his hand. Muse about the origins of the antihistamine, Benadryl, and in an instant we have the answer. The temperature in Perth, Australia -- at this very minute -- pops right up on that tiny little screen.

But that little screen is a problem. If the history of the Panama Canal appears in tiny little letters in an article that goes on for several pages, my eyes cross and my attention lags. I find I don't need the answer to all my questions this very second.

At least (and I'm grateful) the iPhone isn't the home of one of those tiny little women who can listen to you phrase your question and then speak the answer back to you. That might create severe domestic problems.

Meanwhile, if I want more information about a current author or event, or a summary of the latest political brouhaha, I can use a computer at the library. But, the answers to many of my questions, even in the 21st century, can still be found in one of our dusty old reference books.

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