You might guess that the revered 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest of all modern reference works. You would be wrong. That honor, as Jack Lynch reminds us in “You Could Look It Up,” must go elsewhere. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”— in the words of Douglas Adams — “has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words ‘Don’t Panic’ inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.”
Lynch’s tribute to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide”— though tongue in cheek — is characteristic of the light touch he shows throughout this history of “the reference shelf from ancient Babylon to Wikipedia.” No harmless drudge he, this Rutgers professor of English takes a broad view of his subject and includes lively pages on several dozen radically different works, including “The Code of Hammurabi,” Pliny’s “Natural History,”the long defunct papal index of prohibited books, Hoyle’s rules for card games, the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the National Union Catalogue, Emily Post’s “Etiquette in Society,” “The Joy of Sex,” the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics and even “Schott’s Original Miscellany.”
Taking Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives” as his model, Lynch compares and contrasts two similar books in each of his chapters, juxtaposing, for example, John Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1855) and E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870). He also includes extensive bibliographical information about each work. The famous Greek-English lexicon co-edited by Henry George Liddell—whose daughter inspired “Alice in Wonderland” — and his friend Robert Scott initially contained 1,584 pages, 104,000 entries and 2.3 million words. It weighed five pounds. Elsewhere we learn that Ortelius’s “Theatrum orbis terrarum”— a Renaissance classic of cartography — first appeared in 1570 on 38 leaves, featuring 53 double-columned maps. God is in the details.
Between each of his major chapters, Lynch intersperses additional essays, reflecting on, say, alphabetical order, plagiarism or literary societies. Thus, in “Tell Me How You Organize Your Books” he describes his study and the reference works he consults most often, starting with the Oxford Companion to English Literature and the Oxford Classical Dictionary. (He doesn’t mention, however, two of my own favorites: Martin Seymour-Smith’s huge New Guide to Modern World Literature and Oxford’s little but handy Annals of English Literature.) Despite that extensive home library, Lynch is no Luddite. He has installed on his computer and smartphone digital versions of many of the same works on his shelves, as well as the mammoth Dictionary of National Biography.
As befits a book about fact-filled books, “You Could Look It Up” regales the reader with odd bits of information. “Legal compendia are among the foundational reference works in every civilization.” According to “The Domesday Book” — William the Conqueror’s survey of his island kingdom — England had 28,235 slaves in 1085. In his famous dictionary Samuel Johnson notoriously, and gloriously, defined the word “network” as “any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.”
Similar technical language crops up, inevitably, in a section about the Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack. Lynch relates that its original author, John Wisden, once “bowled all ten wickets in the second innings of the South v. North game on July 15, 1850.” I have no idea what that means. Still, as Lynch quickly adds, “No one had ever done it before, and in the more than 165 years since, no one has done it again.” Similarly impressive, in a quieter way, is the story he tells of the imprisoned Malcolm X who, wanting to improve his vocabulary, copied out by hand an entire dictionary.
In the most charming of his interchapters Lynch examines the practice of prank entries in reference books, pointing out for special delectation the article in the New Columbia Encyclopedia on “the distinguished American fountain designer Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, who had achieved some fame with ‘Flags Up!,’ a collection of photographs of rural American mailboxes. Ms. Mountweazel, alas, met a premature end, dying in an explosion while she was researching an article for Combustibles magazine.” Another section, devoted to the Anglo-Indian dictionary known as “Hobson-Jobson,” reminds us that South Asia gave English not just words like “chutney” and “nirvana” but also “cummerbund,” “khaki” and “shampoo.” And did you know that the Brothers Grimm when not collecting fairy tales worked on a great etymological dictionary of the German language? Instead of actual definitions they initially planned to give the Latin equivalent for each German word. (They later changed their minds.)
Scholars might certainly fault “You Could Look It Up” for trying to cover too many books and skimping major works such as the 18th-century French Encyclopedie. But the serendipity of its contents is part of the book’s fun. Having sold Fuller Brush products door to door in my youth, I would have welcomed even more detail about the rise and fall of the encyclopedia salesman. In the late 1980s, the World Book Encyclopedia employed a whopping 45,000 door-to-door representatives.
Almost everything, it would seem, has its own handbook, catalogue or bible. At one point Lynch simply lists unusual guides and glossaries, such as “The Baltimore Bottle Book: Being an Annotated List of 170 Years of the Collector Bottles of Baltimore City and Baltimore County, 1820-1990.” He also notes that the Guinness Book of Records has stopped accepting submissions in “life-threatening categories” and particularly anything that involves headstands, sleep deprivation, hunger strikes, lots of cigarettes or vast quantities of alcohol.
As his subtitle promises, Lynch’s final chapter focuses on Wikipedia, emphasizing its fabulous strength through numbers. On March 1, 2006, the millionth entry was an article on Jordanhill, a Scottish railway station. “Its author, Ewan MacDonald,” wrote historian Stacy Schiff, “posted a single sentence about the station at 11 P.M., local time; over the next twenty-four hours, the entry was edited more than four hundred times, by dozens of people.” Lynch does, however, stress the presentist bias of Wikipedia entries: “Thomas Aquinas weighs in at just over 37,000 words on his life and major works; Michael Jackson warrants five times the space.” (I’m not sure that “warrants” is quite the right word.) Perhaps even more serious is the danger of relying on a single source for our facts. Only a range of reference works can ensure “multiple sources of information, multiple ways of organizing the world, multiple points of view.”
Despite its high anecdotal and amusement quotient, Jack Lynch’s fine book does deal with some fairly arcane material. Consequently, it should probably be enjoyed slowly rather than read straight through. Like so many reference-shelf classics, “You Could Look It Up” even invites browsing. A chapter or two in the evening could be just about right.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Jack Lynch
Bloomsbury. 442 pp. $30