Remembering the narrative encyclopedia

In the 60s/70s and into the 80s there was a spate of book sets that were released. I’m not sure that they have ever been recognized as a group, so they don’t really have a name. I’m going to call them narrative encyclopedias (I’m open to a better term).

What the hell is a narrative encyclopedia?

I don’t think there is a standing definition, here’s my best take on one: Multi-volume sets of over-sized hardcovers about a single, large subject with individual volumes covering a specific area of the subject, released over an extended period of time. They often employed a strong visual style, utilizing extensive images, drawings, pictures, and photographs that accompanied the text. Taken as a whole, they were somewhere between a superficial overview and a deep dive of the subject, a medium dive if you will.

The most popular of these was Time Life Books. Here is a link to the Wikipedia page, there’s no need to regurgitate what is there. But they were not the only publisher of these types of books. These books often, but not always, sold millions of copies and were once a staple of many a household. I think people close to my age will likely remember reading some of these books.

Then they disappeared. Maybe the audience for them aged out. Maybe, like Time Life, there was a shift to audio. Whatever the reason(s) the model was no longer attractive. The linked Wikipedia article sheds some light on these shifts.

Despite elevated prices on Ebay (I suspect many of these auctions are re-listings) there is not much of a market for these books. A patient shopper will find them much cheaper at yard sales, fleamarkets, and thrift stores.

When I see sets out in the wild for cheap prices, on subjects that interest me, I jump at the chance to buy them. I have fond memories of them, they are interesting book artifacts, and, even if the information is dated or has progressed, they can still be informative. To me they’re just cool.

Why Did These Books Exist?

In the beginning of the 20th century there was a push to canonize western literature by way of multi-volume sets that collected great works of literature. Half a tumultuous century later, narrative encyclopedias seem to represent another push to collect information in an easily accessible way. These books almost represent a breather. Like there was a period of huge growth and there was an unspoken desire to take a moment to assess what we had learned, what we had done, and all that had happened.

If you are feeling generous, you could say the narrative encyclopedias were kind of like the internet before the internet (like how Steve Jobs and other early, pioneering computer guys considered the Whole Earth Catalogs to be “Google in paperback form”). Maybe the existence of these books created a space where something like the internet could be created.

The decline of these books leads into another period of large scale change with the rise of the internet and the digitization of information. What these books did, the internet does better.


The best way to end this is to share some of my favorites from my collection.

Out of This World: The Illustrated Library of the Bizarre and Extraordinary is a 24 volume set that I once saw described as X-Files in book form. I nearly have a full set of these, I am missing two volumes.

Crimes and Punishment: A Pictorial Encyclopedia of Aberrant Behavior is a 20 volume set. I have a full set of these, pus some extra individual volumes.

The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau is a 20 volume set. A 21st volume was later added and the information from this series was eventually updated, combined, and condensed into the single volume Ocean World which was published in 1985. I have a full set of these.

Time Life’s The American Indians is a 24 volume set. I only have a couple of individual volumes of this set.

Time Life’s The Old West series is a (26) volume set. I only have a couple of individual volumes of this set. Complete sets of this are, in my opinion, almost always priced too high. I remember reading this one when I was younger.

The Old West series just might be the most well known narrative encyclopedia set of them all. Here are some of the TV commercials that ran during its publication run.


Do you remember these types of books? Did you read any of them? What were some of your favorites?


Links of interest

What is this? Links to various pieces that caught my attention and that I enjoyed reading. I will not be posting many (if any) crime fiction links. David Nemeth already does that and you should be reading him. This truly is shit that Brian found found interesting. After I started the blog, I was posting interesting things as I found them. That was too much. Look for these posts infrequently.

Continue reading “Links of interest”

Confederate Soldiers as Protagonists in Western Stories

There are, perhaps, a couple of reasons why storytellers use Confederate soldiers as a protagonist, chief among them a kind of romanticism of the defeated quality. However, there is a real and historical reason that is in place.

The so called “wild west” (as a fictional construct and a place of massive expansion in a short period of time in American history) has its roots in the Civil War. Displaced Confederate soldiers went west and some of them who engaged in, and were masters of certain military fighting styles (primarily guerrilla warfare) rose to great prominence, especially in the Eastern Establishment media, and their exploits have been fictionalized and memorialized ever since.

Jesse James had very strong Southern sympathies. He rode with “Bloody” Bill Anderson and participated in the Centralia Massacre. Frank James was one of Quantril’s Raiders and also participated in a massacre. Then they went west, formed the James-Younger gang, and entered into the public consciousness as folk heroes. People still talk about the Northfield bank robbery, and its aftermath, to this day. His story still holds sway over audiences, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was turned into a critically acclaimed movie in the 2000s.

He isn’t the only one, there are many others.

There is a great book on the subject, The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory by Matthew Christopher Hulbert. It’s out from an academic press so it is pricey, but should be able to be obtained through your library for any who might be interested.

As one reviewer of the book succinctly put it:

“Why do Americans seem more comfortable with ex-bushwhackers as gunslingers and cowboys and bank robbers than as participants in the war that saved the Union and emancipated millions of African slaves?”

Poetry Spotlight: The Selected Poems of Donald Hall


Donald Hall was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2006-2007. The following selection is from “An Airstrip in Essex, 1960”.

It is a lost road into the air

It is a desert

among sugar beets.

The tiny wings

of the Spitfires of nineteen forty-one

sink under mud in the Channel.


Near the road a brick pillbox

totters under a load of grass,

where Home Guards waited

in the white fogs of the invasion winter.


Good night, old ruined war.


In Poland the wind rides on a jagged wall.

Smoke rises from the stones; no, it is mist.

Poetry Spotlight: On the Bus With Rosa Parks by Rita Dove

51D3D8IlU+L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Rita Dove has released 10 volumes of poetry. This selection is from the poem “The Musician Talks About Process”

When I go into Philly

on a Saturday night,

I don’t need nothing but

my spoons and the music.

Laid out on my knees

they look so quiet,

but when I pick them up

I can play to anything:

a dripping faucet,

a tambourine,

fish shining in a creek.

Poetry Spotlight: Galaxy Love by Gerald Stern


This selection is taken from the poem “Orson”

Orson Welles has been my philosopher

for the last few weeks now and if he’s just a

phenomenon and doesn’t really have a system

as Spinoza did or Anaxagorus, he

at least is consistent even if some of the things

he talks about are immensely unimportant

except to actors maybe or gossipmongers.

Poetry Spotlight: Hard Love Province by Marilyn Chin

Hard Love Province 9_10.indd

Marilyn Chin is a Chinese American poet. Wiki tells me this is her fourth collection of poetry.



Black President

If a black man could be president

Could a white man be his slave?

Could a sinner enter heaven

By uttering his name?


If the terminator is my governor

Could a cowboy be my king?

When shall the cavalry enter Deadwood

And save my prince?


An exo-cannibal eats her enemies

Am indo-cannibal eats her friends

I’d rather starve myself silly

Than to make amends


Blood on the altar    Blood on the lamb

Blood on the chalice

Not symbolic    but fresh