In Case of Apocalypse, Break Into Library

While (as I’ve already said) there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the books in the Wood’s House collection, there are some popular genres and themes (broadly construed): historical fiction, outdated textbooks, and a wide variety of reference works.

Among the reference works in the collection are two rather brilliant resources for daily life, both classics of their kind: Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information (1948) and A Dictionary of Everyday Wants (1876). These hefty, comprehensive volumes (1634 pages and 539 pages, respectively) cover everything from basic first aid to running a farm or a business to going on a vacation. They also provide a fascinating snapshot of how the people who wrote and compiled them understood the world — their expectations, their priorities, the technologies with which they were familiar, etc.

Austin's New Encyclopedia of Usable Information

The front cover of Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information (1948)

Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Useful Information, for example, lives up to its title quite well for any reader trying to start a new life as an adult in 1948. From this book, one can learn how to buy and maintain a home, how to choose a pet, the myriad small details necessary for raising children and sustaining a marriage, running a farm, and a wide variety of other information including basic accounting, shorthand, typing, etc. If I had been a new bride (or groom, for that matter) in 1948, I think I would have been quite happy to receive such a book as a wedding present — in a world without/before the internet, this is just the sort of thing one might want to have around in order to make it easier to handle the basic work of being an adult.

A part of the book’s charm is its matter-of-fact approach to life as a collection of tidy, self-contained, mutually connected priorities centered on the concept of a householdOf course, it seems to say, these are exactly the things one needs to know. Whatever else could you want? A later critic, sensitive to issues beyond the book’s scope, might well quibble with some of its assumptions or values — it is not an accident that the only people photographed in it are white, for example — but might nonetheless find that it lives up to its claim to present usable information, even when it comes to human relationships. Marriage is the foundational relationship (about which quite a lot of practical information is provided, in fact), the core around which houses and businesses and farms are to be built.

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Before there was Google, there was Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information, ready to help us learn to dry the dishes sociably with our spouses.

The book (refreshingly) assumes that its clear how-to directions ought to be enough — that is, it assumes an audience of readers capable of taking on the DIY tasks of everyday life with relatively little hand-holding and no little amount of genuine reflection and freedom of judgment. Its marriage and child-rearing advice, for example, is remarkably current and flexible — the text suggests thoughtful, respectful engagement rather than proscribing narrow solutions as a rule, which makes its advice rather reassuring. As a text aimed at making the household and householders self-sufficient, its advice leans toward helping the reader help him or herself rather than solving every problem up front. This is an encyclopedia of usable information, a title that suggests active work and decision-making on the part of its audience rather than passive compliance.

Unlike Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information, A. E. Youman’s A Dictionary of Everyday Wants presents itself in the form of a general collection of several thousand “receipts” (that’s recipes, for folks who spell stuff the new-fangled way) for home remedies, cleaning solutions, approaches to practical farm and hunting tasks (breeding livestock, skinning and preparing game, etc.), and some really questionable medical advice. The Dictionary explicitly speaks to an interesting phenomenon: the ways in which changes in resources and technologies lead to changes in how we live. Its introduction positions it as a text that addresses, in one tidy collection, current developments in a fast-changing world (1876 being no less exciting a time than 1976 or 2006, from the perspective of the folks who live there and then). The Dictionary would probably be quite a bit more use in a wilder world — it does not have the institution of the tidy “household” in a relatively prosperous and stable country as its core organizational principle or model. Rather, it seems to start from a sort of beginning — that is, it assumes something like an idea of the “civilized,” in a constant condition of challenge and development.

I suspect that, should the zombie apocalypse arrive, the Dictionary would be more useful early on, but should living humanity ever attain victory over the shambling dead, the Encyclopedia is just the thing we’d need to make the world feel like home again.





About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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