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William Woodruff: The Book of Knowledge

Author John Cech
Air Date 11/1/2000

William Woodruff Transcript

John Cech: Our guest today is William Woodruff, professor emeritus of history and economics at the University of Florida, and the author of dozens of books and articles, including this selection about the book that mattered most to him in his life. It’s from his autobiography, The Road to Nab End, which is on the nonfiction bestseller list in England, where it is being hailed as a “masterpiece” and “an English Angela’s Ashes.” 

William Woodruff: It was Lifeboy soap coupons that obtained to me the first book I ever owned. It was a one-volume encyclopedia called The Wonderland of Knowledge. I took the trouble to save the coupons. My letter to the soap company was the first letter I ever wrote, and I haunted the postman every day after I’d posted it. I was so excited when the package arrived. It must have weighed seven pounds. The cover was a treat for the eyes; it was dark blue; in the center was a man reaching out for the sun, the moon and the stars. 


There was nothing the book didn’t tell me. Having read Music Through the Ages, I plunged into The Romance of Exploration from Marco Polo onward. I didn’t realize the world was so big. After that I tackled the Great Names in English Literature – thirty-two of them.

There followed the Marvels of Invention. There was even a section on Spinning and Weaving. Then came Wonders of the Insect World. Under miscellaneous I learned how to build a house, where our bells come from, and the story of Bast. The book ended with puzzles and tricks, which I learned by heart, and best of all, a section on magic. 

The Wonderland of Knowledge was the most important book I ever possessed. It began my love of learning. Being the only book I owned, I read it and re-read it until I knew it backwards. I created my own adventure in learning. The book became my most treasured possession. And I’ve been taking it around the world. I possess it still. 

Father wasn’t struck by it: “What use were all that,” he said, “to a weaver?” Mother opened her eyes with awe when I began to rattle off my knowledge: “Imagine you knowing all that,” she said. 

Posted in Interviews, Literature