If you’ve never heard of Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia, you have my sincere pity. I loved these books as a child, and still do today. Not exaggerating at all: I still read these things constantly.
Originally published in 1980, the fifteen book set covered many terrific things, from dinosaurs to foreign wardrobes to our own brains. Using Peanuts characters and comic strips to make every topic relatable to kids, they weren’t very similar to “normal” encyclopedias. It was more like the Cliffs Notes version of everything. All the fat was trimmed; we just got the interesting parts.
I don’t remember how I originally came upon them. It was probably through one of those “supermarket specials” where you got a free book by inadvertently promising to buy the rest. Through yard sales and thrift stores, I’d eventually end up with multiple copies of every volume, from both the original ‘80s run and the updated ‘90s printing.
These books were and remain my happy place. To this day, I’m never more at peace than I am with my face buried in Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia. If you only know the broad strokes about these books, you might assume that the entire appeal lied in the Peanuts comic strips. Not true at all! Those added a lot, but seeing Snoopy and Linus wasn’t even close to the best thing about them.
Here are six of the REAL reasons I loved Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia:
#1: Perfect topics.
A lot of ground was covered in the fifteen volumes, but make no mistake, Funk & Wagnalls knew where their bread was buttered.
Dinosaurs! Outer space! Holidays! Those were just a few of the things covered, and what kid wasn’t interested in topics like that? Keep in mind, they didn’t just “go through the motions,” either. You’d learn the obvious stuff, but they actually dug pretty deep. For example, the dinosaur volume actually had a thing about the Tylosaurus, a prehistoric sea monster that would’ve never been mentioned if these were mere “baby books.”
There’s one caveat. Never repeat what you read in Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias in an effort to sound smart. We’ve learned lots of new things since these books were published, and some of the factoids are pretty outdated. Use this as your start-point to learn things – not your end-point. (I felt it was important to clarify this, even though I’m pitching thirty-year-old encyclopedias to thirty-year-old people. I guess that’s kinda dumb?)
#2: An introduction to strange things I’d eventually become obsessed with.
It isn’t true, but I feel like I was born with some of my interests. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t into dinosaurs or the cosmos, and I certainly didn’t need Charlie Brown to make me pay attention to those things.
But with the books covering so much stuff, I definitely picked up new obsessions from their pages, too. How many Kon-Tiki jokes have I made over the years? Nobody ever knows what I’m talking about, but I still make them, and Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedia is the reason why.
(A guy named Thor Something used the Kon-Tiki to sail across the Pacific Ocean in 1947. To prove that people could’ve made the same trip 1500 years prior, the raft was built only with that era’s materials and equipment. But I don’t love it for its history. I love it because it looked like a clubhouse at sea.)
It’s just one of the many things I’ve latched onto specifically because of these books. It’s amazing how a good photo and a Peanuts sidebar could get me to read about just about anything.
#3: A chance to learn about things I would’ve never bothered to otherwise.
Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias were just chock full of information. Ever have a night where you mindlessly browse Wikipedia, clicking link after link until you’ve somehow learned everything there is to know about a giraffe’s bone structure? These books were the low-fi version of it.
Did I want to know how Himalayans earned a living? No, I can’t say that it was ever on my mind. But I never regretted picking up these gems. Who knows, maybe the useless trivia will come in handy someday. Maybe I’ll go on a game show and win 50k just for knowing that Himalayan people enjoy a good yak.
#4: Charlie Brown knew what we really wanted to know.
A normal encyclopedia might need to adhere to “normal encyclopedia rules,” meaning you’d be shooed away by wordy boredom before getting to the good parts. But Charlie Brown? He knew better! If you’re going to mention skunks, skip the parts about how they nest and how good their vision is. JUST TELL US WHY THEY STINK. And if you can do some hilarious word-weaving to avoid mentioning anuses, that’s all the better.
It’s the same way with most of the other topics, too. When they bring up snakes, we immediately learn about which ones eat humans. When they bring up Eskimos, you only need to get through two paragraphs before they teach you how to make igloos. It’s awesome.
#5: Eerie Wonder.
The writers didn’t dance around the more “mysterious” topics. I mentioned the Himalayans before, and that section includes musings about the Abominable Snowman. In the volume about space, they talk about everything from aliens to future-humans living in big floating cities that look not unlike robot cigars.
They never “fudge” anything, but there’s a certain “speculative” element to Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias. Speculation is good, because the most interesting things in the universe are the ones we don’t have any proof of.
So go ahead, Snoopy. Toss me eighteen different theories about why the dinosaurs died. Paint a picture of a giant comet hitting an icy planet at the exact moment when all of the food was depleted, and hint at a globally-spread fatal disease just to cover your bases. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. I’d rather you be interesting than right.
#6: The books made me appreciate… well, everything.
These days, we take information for granted. It’s impossible not to. Everyone’s an expert on everything, because we’re two clicks away from learning anything about anything.
Of course, it wasn’t always that way. What I appreciate most about Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias is something the books could never pull off today. They were glimpses into areas of the world (and beyond) that I would’ve otherwise had zero access to. The books made me appreciate things I overlooked, and things I’d previously never even heard of.
Before Charlie Brown, I’m not sure I knew that doodlebugs were vicious bastards that built death traps for ants.
Before Charlie Brown, I thought a “windjammer” was just an ugly jacket.
It went on and on, but what I learned was secondary to the respect I gained for the things I learned about. Charlie Brown’s ‘Cyclopedias just made everything seem so much better and purer.
Maybe that’s why I still spend so many nights picking them over sitcom reruns?