There’s a snippet of text that bounces around the ’net at irregular intervals — it concerns the latest development in digital gadgetry, called ‘Built-In Orderly Organised Knowledge’ (B.O.O.K.). Nowadays it strikes me as a bit precious and predictable, but here’s the thing: I remember having read it (or something very like it) in the late 60s, at which point I thought it was exceedingly clever.
I thought I remembered that it was written by Stephen Leacock, partly because I was on a big Leacock kick in those years, fuelled by my father (who was a connoisseur of astringent humour in essays). So to satisfy my bibliographic obsession, I began
googling searching the Web for “built-in orderly organized knowledge” and “leacock”, but came up with no results. I then searched for Leacock with various parts of the title phrase, likewise to no avail. At length I decided that the most important aspect of my search was the date of my first encounter with the phrase, jettisoned my Leacock search terms, poked around a bit, and discovered what must be the ur-source of the meme.
The document I found is ‘The Education of the Gifted Child: An Annotated Bibliography’ by Maurice G.Verbeke and Karen A. Verbeke (you can try to order a bound copy from Amazon, though it’s currently not available) — but that’s not where the B.O.O.K. originated. Rather, the Verbekes list the publication in 1965 (the chronological sweet spot for my having had access to it) of an article by R. J. Heathorn, entitled ‘New Teaching Machine — Great for the Gifted,’ in Gifted Children Newsletter 8:23-24, September 1965. And the annotation that the Verbekes so providently supply reads ‘Article describing the new teaching machine called BOOK (Built-in Orderly Organised Knowledge). It is quite adaptable and covers a lengthy program of information.’ It has been reprinted several times, and you can read it here. It differs from the more recent meme, but the later version has evidently been rewritten (to suit actual technological developments) on the basis of Heathorn’s.
But wait! It turns out that, on further searching, the Gifted Children Newsletter has lifted Heathorn’s essay from his column in the April 1963 edition of Harper’s — here entitled ‘The Ultimate Teaching Machine.’ I don’t have access to Harper’s, so I can’t check, but the title and the illustration (visible in the thumbnail provided) match the essay.
But that’s not all! Apparently Harper’s got Heathorn’s essay from Punch (May 9, 1962) (thank you, Brian!)
So, several lessons learned. One, I can afford to trust my memories in general, if not in particular. The essay I remembered was more subtle and clever than the internet-ified version that now dominates the Web, and it was indeed written by a professional humorist (though not Stephen Leacock himself). Two, don’t stop searching at the first positive result; add elements from that first result to the search and find more, deeper, older results. And three… I have forgotten the third thing, but it was good, trust me.