RIP, Donald J. Sobol, Father of Encyclopedia Brown

Donald J. Sobol, author of the Encyclopedia Brown books, died last Wednesday. He was 87.

I shared that link into half a dozen apps and was rewarded with a respectable crowd of sorrowful adults. We read the Encyclopedia Brown books ravenously as kids, read them to our kids when we had them, or to nieces, nephews, and step kids if we didn’t.  Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, was as real to our ten-year old minds as the keyboard that I’m typing this on.

I read every damn one of those books even though I sucked at figuring out the answers.

For years, my brother and I couldn’t hear the song “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” without smiling and wondering aloud what the hell kind of world would allow Bugs Meany, Private Detective, to be a thing? (As adults, we found out. Boy, were we pissed.)

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of these books in my life.

It wasn’t just the fact that Brown knew everything, and learned everything he knew through reading. It wasn’t the fact that he was self-conscious enough about his wonderful brain that he purposely dumbed himself down when answering crossword puzzles for his neighbors as they stopped him on the street (he always paused a moment before answering.)  It wasn’t even the fact that Encyclopedia’s dad was the local chief of  police and occasionally asked his son for advice.

And it wasn’t just that Brown was a good guy, the sort of kid you’d want to have as a friend, unlike that asshole Tom Dennis Fitzgerald. The Great Brain was the neighborhood smart-ass who would eventually grow up to be Jaimie Dimon. We hated him even as we kept reading about his adventures, because well, the books were a lot of fun and the YA market back then was not what it is today.  The point is, we liked Encyclopedia.

Encyclopedia Brown believed that life was a series of opportunities to apply the stuff you knew to everyday situations. Every day brought up a long string of questions to ask and every question had an answer. There was no such thing as useless knowledge.

Encyclopedia Brown cared about every kid who came to him for help. No case was too big or too small.

Encyclopedia Brown was fallible. He didn’t always get it right. There was one instance where the clues were out of his scope–social cues, mostly, involving the differences between how men and women behave in public–and Sally Kimball had to hand him the answer by pointing out the clues that he’d missed. He didn’t have to know every little thing because his friends would fill in the gaps in his knowledge, just like he filled in theirs. The take away: examining reality is a joint exercise.

Encyclopedia Brown was never afraid to call out a liar. He knew that reality had one set of facts and everyone had to abide by them.  Only crooks, con artists, and liars avoided this.

Encyclopedia Brown wasn’t afraid to go up against bullies–kids older, bigger, and frankly, meaner than he was–in order to solve a case. This was decades before the phrase “My Dad is a cop,” was used by asshat jocks to cow younger classmates.

Finally, Encyclopedia Brown taught me that even if you don’t get the clues right, they are out there. Anyone with the ambition and tenacity to search for them can find them, and therein learn a bit more about reality.

R.I.P., Donald. You will be sorely missed.

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  1. [...] my post last week about Encyclopedia Brown, I mentioned that he and Tom Dennis Fitzgerald, a.k.a The Great Brain were counterparts of sorts. [...]