So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: In the age of Google and Wikipedia, reference books seem anachronistic, but some have not been superseded by the internet in their usefulness and convenience and even in their ability to divert and entertain. What is the one reference book you couldn’t live without?Andrew: It doesn’t fit on my bookshelves, and it dwarfs everything on my coffee table, so when not in use, I stand it up on the floor, where it leans casually against a pillar near my stereo speaker. Big, blue and glossy, my National Geographic Atlas of the World (Eighth Edition) has been with me for just over two years now, the result of a rare moment of book-buying extravagance.Admittedly, everything in it can probably be found somewhere online, and indeed if I’m at work I’m the first to be glad of Google or Mapquest if searching for something specific. But if I’m at home, there’s nothing like opening this massive book on my lap, or seeing it sprawl in front of me on the dining room table, seeing the world open up before me. Even if I’m not searching for something specific – indeed especially if I’m not – the very bigness of the atlas leaves me with an appreciation of the bigness of the world, and there’s little I enjoy more than getting lost in its pages.Lydia: My dear editor, there are some circles where you will get cut for talking about reference books like that. It was my great pleasure to spend the last two years working for an antiquarian bookseller, and as a result I encountered a bewildering number of bibliographies and reference books, many of which are not online and which have no useful online equivalent. The fourth edition of Besterman’s World Bibliography of Bibliographies, if you please, is five enormous volumes, and that was published in 1965. Some industry standards have made the switch to digital, but I think it will be a long time before the antiquarian (anachronistic?) book trade mulches all of its physical reference libraries. That said, I’m willing to be pragmatic about the eventual digitization of everything because it seems so unlikely that I would be able to amass a legitimate reference collection of my own. The Dictionary of National Biography, for example, is now available online by subscription for around 200 pounds a year, or free if your library subscribes. The set of 60 volumes, on the other hand, is a $5,000 proposition, not to mention the price of the square footage it sits on. But none of this answers your question. My favorite reference book is the book my boss told me to read when he hired me, John Carter’s legendary ABC For Book Collectors. It explains books as objects and commodities from A (advance copy) to Y (yellow-back) in a straightforward and engaging manner. It’s inexpensive, it’s small, it’s been around forever, and it’s fun to read. It is, dare I say, a must-have.Kevin: The key part of the question for me is “has not been superseded by the internet in its usefulness and convenience.” This leads me to pick that most common of all reference books, the dictionary. Mine is a Webster’s New Collegiate won as a prize in high school.When thinking about this question, I considered the ways the Internet typically holds an advantage over physical books. They are, I think, four: first, the Internet is dynamic and easily edited, allowing it to respond to changes in knowledge; second, the Internet takes up little room in your house, making it a nice alternative to a cabinet full of encyclopedias; third, the Internet is associative, allowing you to look up one thing in Wikipedia, and then click through to five other related topics you had not thought about before; and fourth, the Internet has multimedia.The dictionary, though, neither needs nor responds well to the type of advantages the Internet has to offer. It’s content is largely consistent from year-to-year and never needs revising. It takes up little room. It’s not used in a way that benefits that much from associate or multimedia options. In sum, the Internet can no more improve on the dictionary than it can on the wheel.Garth: I have three desk references that I find indispensable. One is the Oxford English Dictionary; I’ve got the two-volume compact edition with the magnifying glass, which I picked up for $37 at a used bookstore. Not every writer will find himself resorting to hippopotomonstrosesquipedalia such as “quiptificate,” or “horripilating,” but, perhaps to my discredit, I sometimes do. Luxuriating in the etymological swarf of the O.E.D. is also a great way to procrastinate, in that it gives me the illusion of time usefully spent. Right next to the thick two volumes is the American Map Corporation’s remarkable Truckers Atlas for Professional Drivers. If you need to locate a character within an American state or major city, the 400-page Truckers Atlas is your man. Finally, the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature comes in handy for blog pieces. The entries are fairly bland, but are great for fact-checking, and the book has a nice globalist bent.Anne: I fear I’m far too digitized. Despite the Mennonite origin of my last name, I am by no means a Luddite. My favorite reference is the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary on CD-ROM – it’s an amazing tool, with the definition of every word in the the English language only a few taps away at the keyboard, and without the heft of the paper dictionary. It’s also great for finding words when you only half recall the word, because when you enter a word that’s not in the dictionary, it suggests a list of words you may be looking for. You can do a reverse word look-up as well as a search for words that rhyme. Also useful, though not quite as nifty, is the online version, which has all the benefits of the CD-ROM except you have to pay a yearly fee for the service and if you’re without web access, you’re without your dictionary. (Plus, an open web browser makes for an easy distraction when writing.)I love the breadth of the Oxford English Dictionary, especially because it shows a word’s origins and the ways the use has changed over time, but I haven’t had access to the online version since college and there isn’t room for the old-fashioned form in my Brooklyn apartment. Despite its unreliability, I am madly in love with Wikipedia for the expansive information it offers about seemingly everything. I still consult Abrams’ Glossary of Literary Terms as well as the Merriam Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, one was a staple in my college literature classes and the other I purchased for ten dollars in a discount bookstore. They’re both useful but not irreplaceable. When I was working as a copy editor and proofreader, I lived by Fowlers and The Chicago Manual of Style. Now they’re both gathering dust on my bookshelf.Emily: I’m a sucker for etymology. English words and phrases aren’t only the means by which stories are told, they have stories to tell themselves about our past – about ancestors and mores and customs long dead. Cobweb, for example, tells of a time in England’s Anglo-Saxon past when a spider was a coppe. Corduroy, “corde du roi” or “cord fit for a king,” tells of a time when what we know as a sturdy, humble fabric was made of silk instead of cotton and was used exclusively by French royalty for their hunting costumes. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is a great source of etymological lore, and so long as my generous patrons at Stanford University continue to allow me remote access, the online version of the OED is the reference I can’t do without, and the reference that Wiki and Google just can’t touch. For example, did you know that the sports term “hat trick” comes to us from cricket?2. a. Cricket. The feat of a bowler who takes three wickets by three successive balls: orig. considered to entitle him to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent.1877 J. LILLYWHITE Cricketers’ Compan. 181 Having on one occasion taken six wickets in seven balls, thus performing the hat-trick successfully. 1882 Daily Tel. 19 May, He thus accomplished the feat known as the ‘hat trick’, and was warmly applauded. 1896 WEST 1st Year at School xxvi, The achievement of the hat~trick afforded Eliot the proudest moment of his life.b. Hence gen., a threefold feat in other sports or activities.When Stanford gives me up and I am cut off from my beloved OED, there is William and Mary Morris’ Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. It’s not as comprehensive as the OED, but its entries have an old-fashioned quality that sometimes verges into a delightfully colorful tastelessness (without sacrificing historical accuracy!). Take donnybrook:A true donnybrook consists of a knock-down-drag-out brawl with anywhere from a handful to a mob of participants. It takes it name from the town of Donnybrook, a suburb southeast of Dublin. There, from medieval times up to the middle of the nineteenth century, were held annual fairs, which for riotous debauchery rivaled the Saturnalian revels of Caesar’s time. They always wound up in fisticuffs and worse—much worse.Over the centuries the Irish have displayed a notable disinclination to avoid a good fight. Indeed, their hankering for a brawl is as legendary as their ability at handling their traditional weapon, the shillelagh. So it’s hardly to be wondered at that the annual spectacle of thousands of Irishmen flailing light-heartedly about with splendid disregard for the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules should have made the name donnybrook synonymous with brawling.Ah, yes, Irishmen and their shillelaghs. I think they also eat nothing but potatoes and babies and live in caves. No?Max: Even as a kid I always loved map books and encyclopedias. In the case of the latter I spent many hours with a well-worn set of Golden Book Encyclopedias and then later, many more with the family’s World Book set. With all the moving around I did after college, a reference library wasn’t a luxury I could afford to lug, but I do have a couple reference books I use regularly. One is my AP Stylebook, the one required reference of my journalism school years. I still keep it within reach for quick answers to questions like when to capitalize “chief justice” and what precisely is meant by the term “prime rate.”Also still getting ample use is a fat paperback, The Synonym Finder. When I was working at the bookstore in Los Angeles, a writer from out of town came in. She was suffering a bout of writer’s block and the only cure was The Synonym Finder. We had a single, very beat-up copy tucked away on our shelves, but she bought it gladly and with a sense of relief that was visible on her face. The episode convinced me, and I secured my own copy as soon as I could. She was right. It’s a superior thesaurus, and it has never disappointed me.With this Millions Quiz, we decided to try something new. We also polled members of The Millions Facebook Group to get their answers to our question. Here a few of the responses:Matthew Tiffany: Omit needless words. Omit. Needless. Words. Strunk & White.Anne Fernald: The Oxford Companion to English Literature (ed Margaret Drabble – it’s her voice I love) followed closely by M. H. Abrams’ Glossary of Literary Terms.Mike Lindgren: Chicago Manual of Style. It would not be readily reproducible online, and it is essential for anyone serious about the business of words.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What are your essential reference books?
The O.E.D., the ultimate bibliophile’s extravagance may never again appear in a new print edition, according to the New York Times. (via)”The most talked about books of the 2008 spring season,” according to European newspapers.Like Kennedy buffs hunched over stills from the Zapruder film, Bolaño enthusiasts may find themselves scrutinizing the cover design for 2666 (featured on the back flap of the galley).Wyatt Mason, one of America’s best critics, enters the blog fray. As does The New Yorker.”The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth.“
Languagehat is a deep repository of interesting linguistic tidbits. An essential blog for those with an interest in language, Languagehat is also engaging enough to make regulars out of a monolingual like me. “Hat” was nice enough to share some of his favorite books from this year:Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction isn’t even out yet, but as a copyeditor I’ve had the opportunity to read the whole thing, and it’s definitely one of my favorite books of the year. Yes, I got paid money to read it, but anyone who knows me at all knows that lexicography and science fiction are two of my favorite things, and to have them combined in a glorious package is a thrill that has nothing to do with a paycheck. If someone had told me forty years ago that the people who put out the OED would one day apply their scholarly talents to my favorite field, I would have been even more impatient for the future to arrive. It’s got etymologies, citations going back to the Renaissance and right up to 2006, fan terms going back to the purple-stained days of hectographs… Anyone who loves both words and sf will love this book. FIAWOL (= Fandom Is a Way of Life)!Grant Barrett’s The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English is another amazing lexicographical performance that does something that would have been impossible until the advent of the Internet: applies the full panoply of scholarly resources to new or marginal words that do not appear in other dictionaries. Grant’s website Double-Tongued Word Wrester has been tracking such words since 2004, and he’s put the best of them into this book. One of my favorites is vuzvuz ‘a derogatory name for an Ashkenazic Jew… This term is usually used within the religion, especially by Sephardic Jews.’ A few entries in succession: AMW “a (pretty) woman whose career derives in some way from her appearance’ (from Actress, Model, Whatever); area boy ‘a hoodlum or street thug’ (a Nigerian term); armchair pilot ‘a person who talks about, studies, or directs airplane flying, but is not qualified to, or does not, handle the controls’ (a military term), and Asbo ‘a court order designed to curtail unwanted public behavior’ (UK, from “anti-social behaviour order”). I can splash around in it for hours.I’ve been doing a lot of reading about century-old Russian history, trying to understand the Revolution and how it happened, and Michael Melancon’s The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian Anti-war Movement was a surprisingly gripping read that is far more comprehensive than the title might indicate and explained things that better-known volumes pass over with hand-waving and generalities, in particular how exactly it was that all those workers and soldiers poured out into the streets in the last days of February 1917 and toppled the tsar. The SRs have been pretty much forgotten in the obsession over the Bolsheviks who wound up taking the tsar’s place, and if you’ve read enough to know who they are, you probably (like me) filed them away on a mental index card labeled “terrorism, peasants.” Turns out that’s a ridiculous oversimplification, and they were tremendously popular with the urban proletariat until the summer of 1917, when (like everyone else anywhere near the reins of power) they disappointed people who wanted peace and land sooner rather than later. Anyone interested in the period should read the book; Melancon’s working on one about the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, 1917-1921, which I’m looking forward to. (Incidentally, his name has a c-cedilla in French, and he pronounces it the French way, me-la(n)-SO(N).)Thanks Languagehat!
The BBC is offering limited online access to the OED as part of a BBC miniseries on the famous (and famously huge) dictionary. Unfortunately, it’s only available until February 13, and according to Boing Boing they are trying to limit access to Brits only. However, you may want to try to get in, because I managed to access it from here in Chicago. (I emailed Cory at Boing Boing to suggest that perhaps the restrictions had been lifted, but he chalked it up to the fact that “IP-based filters genuinely suck.”) At any rate, considering the astronomical cost of the OED, it’s worth a try to check it out while it’s free.Update: More details at Language Hat.