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YOU COULD LOOK IT UP by Jack Lynch Kirkus Star


The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

by Jack Lynch

Pub Date: Feb. 23rd, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-8027-7752-2
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Lynch (English/Rutgers Univ.; The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park, 2010) shares his love of reference books.

Reference books are made for looking up a particular point; they facilitate consultation rather than reading from cover to cover. However, as the author intriguingly demonstrates, it’s still fun to grab a volume of the encyclopedia and wander through it. In this entertaining “love letter to the great dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases,” Lynch traces the history of reference works from the ancients to Google and Wikipedia. One of the best chapters describes how he organizes his own collection, from those at the ready, like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, to foreign language and slang dictionaries and the Concise Encyclopedia of Heraldry. As readers make their ways through this book, they are certain to discover a wide variety of must-haves—e.g., Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s Dictionary of Imaginary Places or Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. The creators of reference books seek the orderly systematization of knowledge, and their creations bring respectability to everything they touch. Pliny’s Naturalis historia, Ptolemy’s Geography, William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book, and even what may be a map of the stars in the caves of Lascaux were just a few of the first reference books. The Enlightenment saw the first vernacular dictionaries. The 17th-century Le Dictionnaire de l’Academie francois prescribed a word’s usage, while Samuel Johnson described the word itself. If a dictionary explains what something is, an encyclopedia explains how it works. Enter Denis Diderot, whose Encyclopédie used entries from the likes of Rousseau and Voltaire, setting the stage for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and eventually Wikipedia.

Great stuff for anyone who loves knowledge, deep or trivial. Some readers may even indulge in buying one of the more esoteric titles the author highlights—e.g., The Dictionary of Dainty Breakfasts or Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich.