I'm old enough to remember encyclopaedias, and lucky to have grown up in a house that had a Victorian collection of books. We weren't particularly encouraged to look at those books as children, but I spent a lot of rainy afternoons as a teenager flicking through bound albums of Punch looking for cartoons that I could understand (and absorbing all sorts of Victorian political and social commentary that was beyond me at the time).
Even more fascinating was an atlas that was almost to big to manage alone, and still a bit incomplete when it came to the middle of Africa (lake Victoria had been glued in at some point after publication). It was a thing to be looked at with others, and full of countries (all the German principalities) that were long gone. I'm also old enough to realise that maps are still being continuously re-drawn - the maps we had on schoolroom walls in the 1980's now as hopelessly out of date as that Atlas from the nineteenth century.
Every time I try and pick up this 2 volume whopper I'm reminded of that Atlas, or the monumental Bibles that I never really looked at, and really wish I had now. Not just because of the size, but because it has the same air of wanting to be shared, and being an evenings entertainment in itself, that those Victorian beauties had.
I've been working my way through it for a week or so now (and can't quite believe my luck in having been sent a copy - it's a serious treat to have this), it would make an excellent family Christmas present for people - well for people like me I suppose. I'm in love with it because I adore these kind of cartoons (I still miss Punch which I bought religiously in my early teens almost exclusively for the cartoons, it's an extra bonus to find a few artists I remember working for the New Yorker too), and the encyclopaedia format is great as well.
Arranging by subject rather than chronologically works really well, there's some discussion about the various tropes and themes and it's fascinating to see how cultural references are picked up and re worked over the years. It's also a terrific historical record of everything from A to Z, Elvis to Knitting (being 2 sections I've particularly enjoyed).
The best thing though is still the desire to sit at a table, open each volume up, and spend some time going through them, sharing jokes, with family and friends. It's not often these days that I find, or even think of, books in terms of a group activity, but there's something very appealing about it.