My pipe being indubitably smoked out to the last grain, I put it in my pocket and went slowly up to the nursery, trying to feel as much like that impersonation of a bear which would inevitably be demanded of me as is possible to a man of mild temperament. But I had alarmed myself unnecessarily. There was no demand for bears. Each child lay on its front, engrossed in a volume of The Children’s Encyclopaedia. Nobody looked up as I came in. Greatly relieved, I also took a volume of the great work and lay down on my front. I came away from my week-end a different man. For the first time in my life I was well informed. If you had only met me on the Monday and asked me the right questions, I could have surprised you. Perhaps, even now… but alas! my knowledge is slipping away from me, and probably the last of it will be gone before I have finished this article.
For this Encyclopaedia (as you may have read in the advertisements) makes a feature of answering all those difficult questions which children ask grown-ups, and which grown-ups really want to ask somebody else. Well, perhaps not all those questions. There are two to which there were no answers in my volume, nor, I suspect, in any of the other volumes, and yet these are the two questions more often asked than any others. “How did God begin?” and “Where do babies come from?” Perhaps they were omitted because the answers to them are so easy. “That, my child, is something which you had better ask your mother,” one replies; or if one is the mother, “You must wait till you are grown-up, dear.” Nor did I see any mention of the most difficult question of all, the question of the little girl who had just been assured that God could do anything. “Then, if He can do anything, can He make a stone so heavy that He can’t lift it?” Perhaps the editor is waiting for his second edition before he answers that one. But upon such matters as “Why does a stone sink?” or “Where does the wind come from?” or “What makes thunder?” he is delightfully informing.
But I felt all the time that in this part of his book he really had his eye on me and my generation rather than on the children. No child wants to know why a stone sinks; it knows the answer already–“What else could it do?” Even Sir Isaac Newton was a grown-up before he asked why an apple fell, and there had been men in the world fifty thousand years before that (yes I have been reading The Outline of History, too), none of whom bothered his head about gravitation. Yes, the editor was thinking all the time that you and I ought to know more about these things. Of course, we should be too shy to order the book for ourselves, but we could borrow it from our young friends occasionally on the plea of seeing if it was suitable for them, and so pick up a little of that general knowledge which we lack so sadly. Where does the wind come from? Well, really, I don’t think I know now.
The drawback of all Guides to Knowledge is that one cannot have the editor at hand in order to cross-examine him. This is particularly so in the case of a Children’s Encyclopaedia, for the child’s first question, “Why does this do that?” is meant to have no more finality than tossing-up at cricket or dealing the cards at bridge. The child does not really want to know, but it does want to keep up a friendly conversation, or, if humourously inclined, to see how long you can go on without getting annoyed. Not always, of course; sometimes it really is interested; but in most cases, I suspect, the question, “What makes thunder?” is inspired by politeness or mischief. The grown-up is bursting to explain, and ought to be humoured; or else he obviously doesn’t know, and ought to be shown up.
But these would not be my motives if the editor of The Children’s Encyclopaedia took me for a walk and allowed me to ask him questions. The fact that light travels at so many hundred thousand miles an hour does not interest me; I should accept the information and then ask him my next question, “How did they find out?” That is always the intriguing part of the business. Who first realized that light was not instantaneous? What put him up to it? How did he measure its velocity? The fact (to take another case) that a cricket chirps by rubbing his knees together does not interest me; I want to know why he chirps. Is it involuntary, or is it done with the idea of pleasing? Why does a bird sing? The editor is prepared to tell me why a parrot is able to talk, but that is a much less intriguing matter. Why does a bird sing? I do not want an explanation of a thrush’s song or a nightingale’s, but why does a silly bird go on saying “chiff-chaff” all day long? Is it, for instance, happiness or hiccups?
Possibly these things are explained in some other volume than the one which fell to me. Possibly they are inexplicable. We can dogmatize about a star a billion miles away, but we cannot say with certainty how an idea came to a man or a song to a bird. Indeed, I think, perhaps, it would have been wiser of me to have left the chiff-chaff out of it altogether. I have an uneasy feeling that all last year the chiff-chaff was asking himself why I wrote every day. Was it involuntary, he wondered, or was it done with the idea of pleasing?