Sartre, Les mots, jacket

Here is Jean-Paul Sartre, aged around 10 or 11, sitting in his grandfather’s library and discovering the books there.  At that age, I think I was mainly looking at the pictures. For Sartre, encyclopedias represented something far more significant.

The library contained little more than the great French and German classics. There were some grammars, some famous novels, the Selected Tales of Maupassant … but the Grande Larousse captured my attention more than anything; I took a volume at random, behind the desk, on the second to last shelf, A-Bello, Belloc-Ch or Ci-D, Mele-Po or Pr-Z (these juxtapositions of syllables became proper names that designated the areas of universal knowledge; there was the region Ci-D, the region Pr-Z, with their fauna and flora, their cities, their great men and their battles) … Men and animals were there, in person; the engravings were their bodies, the text, their soul, their singular essence; outside the walls you encountered vague sketches that more or less approximated to these archetypes without reaching their perfection … I found the idea more real than the objects, because it was presented to me first and because it was presented to me as an object. It was through books that I encountered the universe; assimilated, classified, labelled, thought, still powerful; and I confused the disorder of my experiences through books with the accidental course of real events. From there came the idealism that it took me thirty years to lose.

Sartre, Les mots,  Gallimard, 1964: “Lire” (my translation)

Few readers have described in such loving detail the magic and unworldly perfection of the encyclopedia. Fewer still have admitted to being held in its idealist grasp for so long.