The Encyclopedia Reader
A marvelous report and semi-profile by Daniel Gross in the New Yorker:
A few months ago, Robin Woods drove seven hours from his home, in Maryland, to visit a man named Mark Stevens, in Amherst, Massachusetts. The two had corresponded for years, and they’d spoken on the phone dozens of times. But they had never met in person. Woods, who is bald and broad-shouldered, parked his car and walked along a tree-lined street to Stevens’s house. He seemed nervous and excited as he knocked on the door. A wiry man with white hair and glasses opened it.
Within a few minutes, Woods, who is fifty-four, and Stevens, who is sixty-six, were sitting in the living room, talking about books. The conversation seemed both apt and improbable: when Woods first wrote to Stevens, in 2004, he was serving a sixteen-year prison sentence, in Jessup, Maryland, for breaking and entering. It was a book that had brought them together. “I never met you until today, but I love you very much,” Woods told Stevens. “You’re a good man.”
At Jessup, Woods had begun reading Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia, a four-pound tome that starts with an entry on the German city of Aachen and ends with zymogen, a protein precursor to enzymes. He hoped to read all of its two and a half million words, and he spent hours flipping through the pages, following cross-references. “Once I would find a subject, it would lead me to the next,” Woods told me. “You could put a whole story together.” One day, he was puzzled to read an entry stating that the Turkic ruler Toghrïl Beg had entered Baghdad in 1955. He quickly realized that it should have said 1055. “I read it several times to make sure,” he said. Then he turned to the masthead, which listed the editor, Mark A. Stevens.
“Dear Mr. Stevens,” Woods wrote in a letter, “I am writing to you at this time to advise you of a misprint in your fine!! Collegiate Encyclopedia.” He described the error and offered his thanks for Merriam-Webster’s reference books. “I would be lost without them,” he wrote, unsure if he’d ever get a response.
What Woods didn’t mention in his first letter to Stevens was. . .
We have evolved to find the acquisition of memes very gratifying.