Asked to name a reference book, you may well choose the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary. But perhaps you’d pick something less elephantine — the Guinness Book of World Records, with its tributes to figures such as Smudge, holder of the record for most keys removed from a keyring by a parrot, or Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which informs us that the Russian equivalent of ‘to carry coals to Newcastle’ is ‘to go to Tula with one’s own samovar’.
The American literature professor Jack Lynch has spent a large part of his life exploring the world of reference books, and in its darker corners has spotted items as recondite as Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich and Rectal Bleeding: A Medical Dictionary, Bibliography and Annotated Research Guide. The former is the brainchild of an author whose other achievements include the surely oxymoronic Astonishing Conservative Thoughts, while the publisher of the latter strays into more far-fetched territory with the claim that, ‘If your time is valuable, this book is for you.’
Assembling even the most humdrum work of reference demands scholarship, punctiliousness and a surprising amount of imagination. You Could Look It Up is Lynch’s ‘love letter to the great dictionaries, encyclopedias and atlases’, and is also an elegy for the pre-electronic age in which such volumes were created not by studious committees but by ‘quirky geniuses, revolutionary firebrands and impassioned cultural warriors’.
In each of his 25 chapters Lynch compares two books. Some juxtapositions are easily foreseen: Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755, compiled with the help of a few part-time amanuenses, is measured against the 1694 dictionary that took the 40 ‘immortals’ of the Académie française more than 50 years. Others are not so predictable: the Catholic Encyclopedia is paired with a 65-volume work of Soviet propaganda, and the first edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, a messy effort that included a potted history of China, sits alongside Edmond Hoyle’s 1742 A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist.
In between chapters there are digressions about abandoned projects and overdue ones, as well as volumes now lost or out of print. According to Lynch, the greatest loss of all is the disappearance of all but 4 per cent of an encyclopedia commissioned in the 15th century by the Chinese emperor Cheng Zu; its 22,937 manuscript scrolls contained an acreage of information unsurpassed by any general reference work until Wikipedia.
It’s in these savvy asides that we get the full benefit of Lynch’s pawky sense of humour. He takes pleasure in highlighting other people’s mistakes, such as the lexicographer Edward Phillips’s statement that a quaver is ‘half of a crotchet, as a crotchet is the half of a quaver’. He also points out some strategic acts of mischief by contributors to reference books. In 1986 an editor laid off by the Encyclopaedia Britannica amended its database so that every instance of ‘Jesus’ became ‘Allah’, and in 2001 the New Oxford American Dictionary included the made-up esquivalience (‘the wilful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities’) in order to catch out rivals who habitually cribbed its entries.
Although he doesn’t set out to be comprehensive, Lynch manages to cover a lot of ground. The Dictionary of National Biography is absent, and the Kama Sutra gets only half a page, but he makes an attractive case for the importance of less familiar works. Among the most bizarre is Sir Thomas Browne’s 17th-century Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a compendium of erroneous beliefs common at the time — for instance, that a chronic fever can be relieved by sleeping with a volume of Homer under one’s pillow.
You Could Look It Up is the sort of densely informative book that’s best read two or three chapters at a time. Dipping into it recalls the sensation of being left unattended in a well-stocked library. Lynch explodes the old chestnut that reference books are hopelessly dry — and the related, tenacious notion that an appetite for fact shrivels the soul. His altogether more seductive position is that every work of this kind seeks to redress the world’s confusions and ‘collects a civilisation’s memoranda to itself’.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £22.50. Tel: 08430 600033
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10