The Random House Encyclopedia

There are more things in heaven and earth than you can squeeze into a one- volume encyclopedia, but 13,500 of them have been illustrated in this one, 11,325 in color. The Random House Encyclopedia is state-of-the-art infotainment, information packaged for an age impatient with the printed word, by packagers who not only believe that one picture is worth a thousand words but know how to design such pictures. The first two thirds of the tome — the ”Colorpedia” — is an irresistible and nearly inexhaustible good browse, with quick data-fixes on cabbages (p. 334), kings (p. 1,077 and elsewhere), cassowaries (p. 526), and cost-benefit analysis (p. 1,461).

Inevitably, some subjects lend themselves to one-liner synopsis and four- color graphic treatment better than others. Weird plants and animals are infotainment naturals; likewise space exploration, human anatomy, and high- tech how-to graphics on subjects like building dams and running railroads. A few subjects resist Colorpedia treatment altogether: René Descartes’ ”I think, therefore I am” doesn’t gain any depth by a picture of two bald heads in profile, one of which emits a thought balloon with a question mark in it. Literature is another area that yields only heads, mostly in black and white, and usually of old codgers and frumps. One would assume, from the spread on American poetry, that no one under the age of 70 ever wrote a poem except E.A. Poe.

This being the second update of The Random House Encyclopedia, one would expect some good background on the larger stories of the past decade. One would be wrong. There are 49 words about the ozone layer at the back of the book — the old-fashioned, all-print ”Alphapedia” — and 65 words about AIDS, the same amount of space allotted to Bob Cousy, who played for the Celtics from ’51 to ’63. Elsewhere, in the ”Time Chart” section, the greenhouse effect is ascribed to the hole in the ozone layer, rather than to atmospheric pollutants. Contrast this astonishing disinformation with the lavish two-page spreads devoted to the occult, astrology, and parapsychology — all presented in a tone of respectful credulity — and score another point for New Age airheads.

The 885 pages devoted to the Alphapedia are useless for most practical purposes except as an index to the Colorpedia and a way to check names and dates. Surely it’s no help to be told, concerning William Golding, that ”his novels are concerned with the nature of humankind.” Even its meatier entries, such as those on Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, seem to be written by computers to satisfy other computers’ data requirements.

For whom is the book intended? An old-fashioned one-volume reference such as The Columbia Encyclopedia is better suited for questions that require answers longer than 50 words. The book’s 130-page atlas/gazetteer is functional, but the larger book chains routinely remainder better atlases for under $10. The 51-page Time Chart is, quite simply, a waste of paper, with knowledge pureed into such microscopically small bits it becomes utterly flavorless. Really, the only reason for having The Random House Encyclopedia is the Colorpedia — but that is reason enough. It is the perfect stocking stuffer for doting parents, bright kids, and anyone else who has an indiscriminate curiosity about how things work and what they look like when you slice them open and peek inside. B

The Random House Encyclopedia
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