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Farewell, Wormhole to Knowledge

WASHINGTON POST

Everything I needed to know about spontaneous human combustion, I learned from the people at Time-Life Books.

There seemed to be no subject Time-Life could not tackle from its august, meticulous-minded, frequently understaffed offices. It drank in the world with the overactive spirit of a child who needs to know everything about anything, and needs to turn in an illustrated report about it, pronto:

Gunslingers of the Wild West, planets of the solar system, French cooking, the human brain, the animal kingdom, the paranormal, freaks, volcanoes, tornadoes, art, boats, planes, extraterrestrials, Mayans, the Civil War, plate tectonics, cocktails, vegetable gardens, pyramids, adding a deck to your home (easier than building a pyramid), the music of the ‘80s (the 1880s, or the 1980s). Hitler! Stalin! Vlad the Impaler! And don’t forget the patron saint of the Time-Life universe: Nostradamus.

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Operators won’t be standing by.

The venerable, insatiably curious Time-Life Books--whose titles are what textbooks would have looked like if school boards were made up of gifted and talented seventh-graders--has been shut down, its 64 editorial employees given the pink slip last week in its offices in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va.

The “continuity series” imprint, begun in New York in 1961 and relocated to Virginia in 1976, is among the first casualties of the streamlined AOL-Time Warner marriage. Who knows what will happen to all those cheerful Time-Life operators of late-night TV ads, with their nifty telephone headsets, ready to send you a no-obligation copy of “Mysteries of the Unknown,” with further installments to follow, about one every month, for only $19.95.

Among the Time-Life operators were a small flock of punk rockers who lived in and around Richmond, where calls were taken at the order center, and who all needed jobs with strange hours where they could show up with green hair.

By the imprint name alone, Time-Life Books carried an authoritative air. Time equaled facts. Life equaled photos.

You could imagine that Henry Luce himself was bellowing to staffers that he needed 12, not 11, definitive books outlining every last thing then known about, say, dinosaurs. (“Right away, chief!” they’d cry, dashing off to museums and libraries.) The next day he wants architecture--all of modern architecture. (“We’re on it, chief!”)

Time-Life Books was an early triumph of direct marketing, selling 30 million books a year at its zenith. That’s a lot of Middle American coffee tables. Adults bought the books with every good intention of filling in perceived vacancies in their smarts and lifestyles. Yes, I would like to know more about galaxies. Yes, I would like to redecorate the kitchen and save money by doing it myself . . . and I cannot get enough of World War II.

But it was children who benefited most. These were the children who had too many questions, the kind of children who would get into trouble for spending all day inside, reading the Guinness Book of World Records.

The fact is, only a very few of us grow up in what could be described as highly intellectual households. Few get the prep school “great books” education of classic literature and scientific thought. You know what I’m getting at: There was more bric-a-brac on our bookshelves than books. Much more Jong than Jung. Unread Books-of-the-Month collected dust on the guest room nightstand. We meant to watch more public television than we actually did.

That was the perfect household for Time-Life.

Time-Life could make simple the concepts of photosynthesis or igneous rock formation or the physics of thunder and lightning. Time-Life introduced you to your large intestine. Time-Life opened and shut its own X-files on UFOs and ghosts years before the TV show did.

Whoa.

An afternoon with a Time-Life Book on science or history was like getting stoned, only without the drugs. (Learning is no less mind-expanding, after all.)

Time-Life had a boundless need to share. Everything about apes, about wine, about hors d’oeuvres, about wood-staining, about birds--who were these people, the vaunted “Editors of Time-Life Books”? How did they know everything?

They knew everything because they looked it up. Over and over. alumni of the Time-Life office (in Washington’s journalism and academic circles, they are legion) practically well up with sentiment when asked to recall the lavish and stern attention given to small text blocks and captions.

Things were done the old-fashioned way at Time-Life. Researchers regularly ran to and from the Library of Congress, even with Internet access. Photo spreads were pinned up for scrutiny in endless meetings. There were guidelines for that oh-so-serious tone that made a Time-Life tome what it was. “German infantrymen,” goes a recommended example, “sprawl on the sand after penetrating the perimeter of Tobruk on June 20, 1942.”

The Time-Lifers seemed to know that people viewed the books as gospel, a portal to a limitless world. Speaking of portals, a former employee recalled a series on medicine in which the human rectum was written up, in a first draft by a florid academic, as “the final portal.” (It was changed.)

At its own final portal, Time-Life Books was out of sync with the modern world. Instant gratification can be had through Google and Amazon; curious 11-year-olds can sit at a computer and go wild with all the information at their fingertips. Grade-school reports have never looked better.

We all know this isn’t the same, not like those hours spent paging through the books, finding out stuff you weren’t even trying to look up in the first place.


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