My wife reads very fancy books about books and manuscripts and language. I read a lot, and do appreciate the idea of these, but this is more my level. From the Law of Hammarabi to Wikipedia, this looks at reference books – academic text books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, law codes, fun books of miscellany. The headline focus of each chapter is two similarly themed books. There will be some stats – size, weight, number of words – but most of the book is devoted to anecdotes that show how and why these volumes were put together and what their impact was. Between the main chapters there are shorter chapters than go off on a tangent: famous mistakes, changes in format, lists of unusual reference books.
My favourite bit of the book was on a less than helpful Polish encyclopedia with the entry “Horse: everyone can see what it is”. On a similar note John Kersey’s New English Dictionary (fork: a well-known instrument; cat: a well-known creature; dog: a beast) impressed. There are many such stories throughout the book. But through the entertainment it becomes clear that writing a reference book is a long, slow, difficult process – even today with larger and larger teams of experts. There is no single right way to do it (though some of the compilers may disagree).
People are moving away from the idea of owning hard copies, but they rarely did anyway – often the full prestigious set was just a opener for more abridged selections. There have been worries in the past about reference books changing behaviour, making us lazier. That debate seems as relevant as ever in a digital world. Despite the possibility to sink into a chain of wikipedia links in a binge read, maybe online doesn’t suit browsing (and finding things we never knew we wanted to know) quite as nicely as a hard copy. Whatever the future holds, this is a light and readable take on the history so far.