Occasionally I’m asked what is or was your favorite book? As a child, my favorite book, hands down, was my “Petit Larousse Illustré”(1905 edition?), a one-volume encyclopedic dictionary in three parts. Its pinkish cover showed a young woman, hair flowing over her shoulders, on her head a coronet of flowers, blowing away the seed pods of a dandelion. The three major sections of the dictionary were composed of definitions (the largest section), quotations in Latin and other languages printed on thin, pink paper, and a historical/biographical section. When a new letter was introduced in the definitions section, it was always prefixed by a picture of random items beginning with that letter, and it was fun to try to guess the name of objects whose names I didn’t know. I don’t remember using “Locutions Latines et Etrangères” very much, but the biographical/historical section was all important. I’m sorry if I’m boring you with all this detail about a book, but I really loved this book, and must confess I miss it. This part of my story is, in a way, a love story, and which lover tires of the descriptions of the beloved? But I’m sure some of you also grew up as bookworms and will understand.
The reason the “Larousse” was so important to me was that I had become a voracious reader, and I just had to check out some of the details about the books I read, and there was no Google in those days. For example, every one has read “The Three Musketeers,” the adventures of four young men (D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis), in XVII Century France; but which of these characters was real and which was fictitious? How many people either know or have read the two sequels, “Twenty Years Later” and “The Viscount of Bragelone, or Ten Years After”? In fourth or fifth grade I read them all because I had to find out what happened to the four heroes afterwards, and after that I had to find out which of these heroes were and were not real. I really had to find out more about them. My trusty Larousse was the place to check it all out, and if you care, Porthos and D’Artagnan were real, the latter rising to Maréchal de France and then having his head removed by a Dutch cannon ball during a French war against the Netherlands.
There was another series of books by Dumas, “père”, titled “The Queen’s Necklace,” this time featuring a main character named Joseph Balsamo, Count Cagliostro, who appears in all the volumes of this long series. In these books he claimed to be over 2,000 years old and the founder of the Masonic Order in Egypt way back when! Who would not want to know more about such a man? The setting for this book was France again, but this time just before and during the French Revolutions, and there was much to find out about the Revolution and Balsamo. Again my Larousse came to the rescue. He was real! Years later, as a matter of fact, while visiting the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, I accidentally came upon a life-sized, white, marble bust of Count Cagliostro! I’ve forgotten most of what I saw on that day in St. Petersburg, but to have seen a bust of Joseph Balsamo, Count Cagliostro, that was really something!
And so, yes, my favorite book, at least as a child, was my “Petit Larousse Illustré.” Not only did it provide information. It also provided endless hours of blissful browsing.