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?

Author: Brian Lindenmuth

Former non-fiction of Spinetingler Magazine and fiction editor at Snubnose Press. Long time reviewer.

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