As far back as I can remember, my childhood home had a Encyclopedia Britannica, a late 1950s revision of its fourteenth edition, which came in its own two-shelf wooden bookcase, with a deep slot in the back which held a massive atlas. My siblings and I all used it when working on our homework, and it was a ready resource to navigate when we were bored or hadn’t decided which book to read next.
I suppose British started my penchant for reference books – that and the Random house dictionary my parents bought it when it came out in 1966. I now have this dictionary, although the British I rather let go with sadness after the death of my parents. In my home office today, I have a library mostly filled with reference works of various descriptions – on language, history, philosophy, religion, law and politics.
Why bother with books? Can’t we just look up everything online today, thanks to Google and Wikipedia? Not really – or maybe not yet – thanks in part to copyrights and paywalls. Google and other search engines often return bizarre results, requiring the exercise of prior knowledge and judgment to tell the wheat from the chaff. And Wikipedia, which I use frequently, is hard to trust beyond simple facts (and even those are sometimes wrong). If you want to know the date of the Battle of Blenheim, fine. But if you want a reliable understanding of the War of the Spanish Succession he was a part of, not so much. For that I would turn to the brief entry in George C. Kohn’s dictionary of wars. For non-paying online resources on specific topics, the one that most comes to mind to surpass its print rivals in terms of expertise and comprehensiveness is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. But in general I always find the reference books hard to beat.
The grandest of all references in our language is undoubtedly the Oxford English Dictionary. having given my second compact edition in one volume (with its magnifying glass) to a young editor years ago, I use the on line version, which I am lucky enough to have access to through a university’s subscription. The WD is truly indispensable for writers and editors, and is unparalleled among English dictionaries for the etymology and evolution of an increasingly global language usage.
For every editor, and for every writer who doesn’t want editors to succumb to them, good user guides are a must. The grandfather of them all is HW Fowler A Dictionary of Modern English Usageoriginally published in 1926. Fowler’s EUTM has been updated by successive editors, not with entirely happy results, as Fowler’s inimitable voice – intelligent, acerbic, mischievously critical – has gradually died down in later editions. So I’m grateful that Oxford keeps a first edition paperback on paper. This is the one I gave to friends.
Fowler is navigable, idiosyncratic, and fun to read. But he is not right on everything, that is to say that, in some cases, he was right in his time but is no longer right now, because uses are changing. For day-to-day reliability, the current best benchmark is Garner’s Modern English Usage by Bryan A. Garner, now in its fourth edition, and also available as a smartphone or tablet app. Garner has good judgment of grammar, meaning, and style, and his entries are historically informed of the constant changes that English is undergoing.
Oxford University Press — publisher of the WD, Fowler and Garner — is by far the leading English-language reference publisher, followed closely by Cambridge University Press. My shelves contain Oxford Classic dictionary, Dictionary of the Christian Churchdictionaries of Phrase and fable and HintCompanions of United States history, Rightand the Supreme Court, and more. Each has its idiosyncrasies of selection and interpretation – I particularly remember using the Oxford Supreme Court Companion in my research years ago, and found some real bloopers there – but in general, I find these books more reliable than Wikipedia or other online sources.
In the not quite a reference category is a book originally published as a manual that I use for reference: The Trivia, by Sister Miriam Joseph Rauh, who taught for many years at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend (when it was the female counterpart of all-male Notre Dame). Subtitle The liberal arts of logic, grammar and rhetoric: understanding the nature and function of language and reprinted in recent years by Paul Dry Books, Sister Miriam’s precisely constructed round of the classic trivium is my go-to resource for catching logical errors and misinterpretations of rhetoric. (Paul Dry also reposted it Shakespeare’s use of language arts, a book of remarkable range and detail demonstrating complete mastery of the Bard’s works. It must have been a real blessing to have been one of Sister Miriam’s students.)
As with many other types of books, I’ve found some of the most interesting references in my collection at second-hand bookstores. One of them is Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principlesfirst published by the University of Chicago Press in 1951. This book does not WD– etymology and history worthy of quintessentially American colloquialisms, ranging from agricultural terms, flora and fauna, folk expressions, regionalisms, material culture, Native American derivations, and social, civic, and religious expressions. If you come across a historical or literary reference to a “Jenny Lind’s car”, you’ll find a picture of it here. It makes browsing enjoyable.
It is the same The sailor’s lexicon, by Admiral WH Smyth of the Royal Navy, published in the mid-19th century. I’m sure I read somewhere once that Patrick O’Brian relied on Smyth to write his Aubrey-Maturin novels about naval warfare in the Napoleonic era. If, like Dr. Maturin, you don’t remember what it means to have the meteorometer, Smyth will tell you.
For my own research on the development of American constitutional law, one of my most useful findings years ago was the U.S. Government Cyclopedia, edited by Andrew C. McLaughlin and Albert Bushnell Hart and published in 1914 (my copy is a 1963 reprint). It is a three-volume work of over 2,000 pages, for which McLaughlin and Hart (themselves leading scholars at the time) recruited the cream of the American academy to write the entries individual, and its ambitious scope means that it is a finely detailed document. snapshot of contemporary political life and historical understanding just over a century ago. What others might dismiss as an outdated compendium of outdated information is an important historical document to me.
When I was trying to track down the origins of the term “judicial review” as a reference to the power of the judiciary to strike down a law on constitutional grounds, it was fascinating to peruse this authoritative reference work for the time and finding not only that there was no entry with that title, but also no use of the term in any other entry where it might have appeared. It was the same year that Edward S. Corwin of Princeton (one of the contributors to the Cyclopedia) published The Doctrine of Judicial Reviewso it was quite a revelation to find out how fresh and new the phrase was at that time – something I was able to make a big deal of when I published a critical introduction to a new edition of Corwin’s book on the occasion of his hundredth birthday.
From whimsical to obscure to seriously dry-as-dust, reference books represent our impulse – perhaps our need – to organize the world around us, and even the worlds inside our heads. , in a form of order and clearer understanding. Since I first opened this British as a child they attracted me and filled me with gratitude.