Essaying: Steven Harvey’s “The Book of Knowledge”

Growing up in the 70s, a lot of my early reading consisted of TimeLife books and encyclopedias aimed at children and adolescents. Even today, I’ll spend an hour or so diving into Wikipedia wormholes, clicking link after link to find trivia I’ll annoy the husband with at dinner. This is why the first sentence of Steven Harvey’s “The Book of Knowledge” grabbed me because he described how his parents brought home a ten-volume set of The Book of Knowledge in 1952. Originally published in volume 13, number 2, of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, it is the concluding essay in Best American Essays 2013.

I could not help but think that Cheryl Strayed, this year’s BAE editor, put this essay at the end of the collection for a reason. Many of us know Strayed because of the writing she did about losing her mother when Strayed was in her 20s. Harvey’s mother shot herself when Harvey was twelve-years-old. Soon after, Harvey and his brother began a new life in Kentucky (they had been living in Illinois) with their father and a new stepmother. Harvey says directly that this new life was a good one. He grew up loved and taken care of.

Then, after he was married and had his own kids, his grandmother (his mother’s mother) gave him letters his mother had written to her during the last years of her life. He wasn’t initially interested in reading them, perhaps out of a fear they would disrupt that stable life he’d built for himself. He kept them filed away until 2010 when he was in his sixties and over five decades had passed since her death.

He plays with narrative style in this essay, providing some historical background on The Book of Knowledge while using the style of the children’s encyclopedia to ask and attempt to answer questions about life and death that no one can answer, especially in a set of reference books aimed at children. Like Strayed, he searches through his mother’s life and death for some kind of meaning. Though his sense of loss seems much more dormant than Strayed’s, the loss is still there, even as a man in his sixties who has led a happy life. And isn’t the essay the place for such searching, such questioning? Of course it is.

Some of my favorite quotations to pique your interest:

“I remembered almost nothing of my life or her life before the suicide except a few vivid flashes–images, really—with the rest blown away by her death, and for years I was resigned to my ignorance, and perhaps even content with it” (277).

“Armed with letters and a children’s encyclopedia, I was determined to know who this woman was and, with luck, claim a legacy of beauty and wonder from a devastating event” (280).

“When I was a boy, I lay in bed at night listening to my parents fight downstairs. The arguments began as conversation mixed with the clinking sound of ice in glasses, the words spoken softly, clipped and brittle, dipping to inaudibility when whispered. The clicking of tree branches that is prelude to the storm. Eventually the voices rose until the two were shouting and finally screaming furiously, the sound coming through the walls in unarticulated growls” (284).

“Suicide is about the survivors” (290).

“When I read them, I got to know her—for the first time, really–know her and miss her. Miss her, not some made-up idea of her” (293).

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