Twelve works of reference

In a world of websites, databases, digital archives offering every kind of information, and every manner of finding such information, why do I cherish some printed reference works? In part it is familiarity – there are works that have sat on my shelves for many years, old friends, reassuring to see, pleasing to handle. In part it is their reputation as works of excellence, the foundation stones of discovery in their particular fields. In part there is something about their physical quality that makes one admire all the more the human being that lay behind their construction. In part it is how they defeat time, achieving a certainty of knowledge grounded in clear fact that still stands while worlds of opinion, bias and supposition crumble around them. Here are twelve favourites, for no other reasons than that I have been using some recently, while another was the creation of an old colleague from long ago who died recently. In the spirit of such things, they are – of course – in strict alphabetical order.

Abstract of British Historical Statistics

This is an awe-inspiring historical source book. It is famous for its great usefulness, cited and plundered by countless historians over six decades, but awesome for how it sets out our past in irrefutable columns and figures. It says that, when all is said and done, all we have left behind us is statistics. The book was complied by history statistician Brian R. Mitchell and historian of economics Phyllis Deane. It draws together figures from a variety of government publications, books and articles, on themes such as population and vital statistics, iron and steel, transport, building, overseas trade, national income and expenditure, and prices. Produced in an age long before computers and databases, the dedicated research involved in locating then noting down these figures that cover centuries is hard to comprehend (and I think of the proof-reader as well). Scrupulous footnotes explain all the caveats and variations in an exemplary demonstration of intellectual discipline. But it’s those lines of numbers, lifting up or dipping down, counting out the measure of the national life, that takes the book beyond science to the philosophical. There was a second volume produced in 1971, and an update of the original in 2011.

A Ben Jonson Companion

There are many dedicated companions to historical, literary, artistic, scientific or sporting subjects, produced by and designed for enthusiasts who find in such works not just usefulness but comfort. Everyman, here is your guide. I choose A Ben Jonson Companion, created in 1983 by D. Heyward Brock, for its particular charm. It is the portrait of a world, that of the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s friend, documented through the writer’s works, associates, themes, imagined characters, beliefs, education, travels and politics. Opening the book up at random, I find Galen, Galileo Galilei, Galla (“in Catiline, a companion to the strumpet Fulvia”), galliard, Ganymede, Gargantua and David Garrick. It is a fine testament to scholarship, an irresistible encouragement to explore, and a delight simply to read. The best reference works take us on an unending adventure.

Catalogue of Stills, Posters and Designs

Most great reference works are a combination of facts and context. The information we require on a particular subject is listed and arranged in optimum fashion, interspersed with text that explains how all this fits into an understanding of a particular world. Not so the National Film Archive’s Catalogue of Stills Posters and Designs. This is pure list. All that the book contains, aside from an enthusiastic foreword by Kevin Brownlow, and introduction and guide to its use, is a list of 37,000 film titles with original title of release, country of production, year of production and director – followed by an index of directors. The book documents all of the stills then held (1982) in the collection of the British Film Institute. It was compiled by my one-time colleague Markku Salmi, who sadly died a few months ago, insufficiently recognised for his dedication towards the documentation of film. The Catalogue is the epitome of a particular film culture, in which to have identified the correct title and date was to achieved a kind of perfection. No one will ever produce such a book again, because it would have to be produced by machine, and we must never trust machines. Markku was someone you could trust entirely.

The Complete Book of the Olympics

David Wallechinsky, editor of The Complete Book of the Olympics, is the grandmaster of list-makers. He made his name with The Book of Lists, which was followed up by a host of similar publications, but he took the list book beyond mere Christmas gift status to greatness through his passion for the Olympic Games. He produced his first The Complete Book of the Olympics in 1984, and volumes have appeared for every Games (soon split into Summer and Winter volumes) up to 2012, after which, sadly, the title seems to have come to an end (my cherished copy comes from 1996). Its success led to Wallechinsky becoming president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. That success lies not simply in listing every contest in every discipline, the medal winners and their scores, but in all that lies in between. Every contest has a backstory, a cast of gripping characters who conquered such odds to be first at just the right time, or to come second at just the wrong time. So much more than mere anecdote, the stories between the figures show what makes the paradoxical Olympic Games work.

The Complete Works of William Hazlitt: Volume Twenty-One

This is something of an indulgence, for which I have no intention of apologising. Among the most treasured of the books I own is a twenty-one volume set of the complete works of William Hazlitt, published 1930-34, edited by P.P. Howe. Volume twenty-one is the index, compiled by James Thornton. Yes, an entire volume, 293 pages, devoted to indexing all of the others. The jacket blurb says that it is “probably the largest Index of its kind”, and perhaps this is so. It is a prodigious listing, with volume and page numbers, of every person, topic, publication, performance or work of art that passed by the great essayist. One can imagine Hazlitt himself leafing through it in some bewilderment at all that he had encountered. Frankenstein, Cricket, Ideas (abstract), Identity (personal), Napoleon (eight pages alone dedicated to Hazlitt’s great hero), Hypocrisy, Papists, Sex (change of), Income tax, Modesty, Phrenology. It is entirely functional, without any of the wit or mischief one finds in other indexes that record a wide-ranging life. Hazlitt might have smiled at it; certainly he would have produced a sharp essay about it. Yet it is the key to an unparalleled mind. .

Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900

Filmography, as I have written elsewhere, is a changing art. The first filmographies were sales tools. They then turned into vault lists, then documents of film culture, and are now evolving into the world of shareable data, supporting arguments that lie beyond film. Charles Musser’s Edison Motion Pictures, published in 1997, somehow embraces all of these. It is a filmography designed to show how some of the first films came out of their times and fed into their times (its subject is Edison films 1890-1900). One can use the book as a vault list, with its precise identification of titles, copyright details, filmmakers, performers, locations and subjects, or one can use it as the framework for any kind of cultural, social or political study. It understands, profoundly, the potential of film. This is not just another invention. This is how the world reflects itself.

The International Discography of the New Wave

This phenomenal work (736 pages), published in 1982, editors B. George and Martha DeFoe, is the model expression of the phenomenon it attempts to document. It is a list of all music worldwide that fell into the category of ‘new wave’, the music that started as punk but then spread in every direction. It is as rough-and-ready as its subject, looking like it was set using a cheap typewriter, and definitely with the cheapest paper. It gives the releases (by artist name), labels, distributors and fanzines of the era, with chapters on such topics as licensing and negotiating a contract, that show the work’s intention to inspire as well as to inform. Given its amorphous topic there is no way that the discography could be complete, though you have to dig deep to find the omissions (ah, so you overlooked The Crewsy Fixers, but most did), while there are some engaging errors (confusing Budgie, drummer with Siouxsie and the Banshees, with the 70s heavy metal band of that name, is a particular joy). There was a volume one, though I never saw it – volume two is the fuller, essential work, now rare and expensive. For those who were there, it’s a monument to an era.

A Literary Guide to the Lake District

Set aside that Wainwright. This is the book to be carrying with you on visiting the Lake District. Now in its third edition (it was first published in 1993), poet and academic Grevel Lindop is responsible for a reference work like no other. It is arranged as though taking you on a journey, going from location to location in a roughly practical direction, naming each of the literary associations that you will encounter, given endless time in which to do so. So it is an impossible journey (except that Lindop has achieved it) yet an irresistible one, as every stone, bridge, beck or lake reveals its link to a printed page from Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Gray, Ransome, Walpole, Martineau and the rest. You can trace the people and the places through practical indexes, while the main body of the book privileges the journey. It reads like a travel guide of old, such as Thomas Gray helped inspire (the poet wrote Journal of a Visit to the Lake District in 1769). It brings together the romantic and the pragmatic. It makes me want to travel again, and to read again.

The Oxford Companion to Chess

What an ideal word ‘companion’ is. It is the reference work as friend, the Virgil to your Dante on a journey through a world that is the mirror of your heart. The Oxford Companion to Chess, edited by David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld, is a companion without parallel. It covers names, openings, endings, tournaments, terminology, variants and themes with wit and insight to match its scrupulous accuracy. The description of the Lewis chessmen (an antique Scandinavian chess set found on the Isle of Lewis), for example, has always delighted me: “All have human representations with facial expressions varying from gloom to anger. Some of the rooks show men biting their shields in the manner of the beserkers. None looks happy”. Useless to anyone unfamiliar with the game, essential to anyone who is, it shows how chess has gained its special status by being profoundly connected with so many areas of human thought and action, the unbounded metaphor. Coolly dispassionate in describing a passion, it was first published in 1984, a second edition in 1992 (when current world champion Magnus Carlsen was two), then nothing. I think my favourite of all reference works would be the third edition, were it ever to appear.

The Penguin Companion to Literature

I don’t know if The Penguin Companion to Literature (published in four volumes over 1969-71) is still sitting on the shelves of Whitstable public library, but were you to visit those shelves and look at the library label on the inside, you would find a flurry of date stamps for much of the latter half of the 1970s. This was a set of books – in particular the Britain and the Commonwealth volume, edited by David Daiches – that I took out again and again and again. I doubt than any other inhabitant of the town had a chance to see it. It was from these pages that I saw what I had to do. I had to read all these books, discover all these writers. So many, of course, I did not know at all. I remember being startled that some person unknown to me called Thomas Carlyle had nearly as long an entry as Charles Dickens. Who was he? How could I not know him? I went out straightaway and read Heroes and Hero Worship. It seemed like here was Literature with a capital L, the definitive statement. Of course, time has proved this so wrong: the pantheon challenged, hierarchies undermined, the heroes heroes no more. Who now would produce a volume on the ‘Commonwealth’, or give Carlyle such space? Yet the books achieve a standard of usefulness and good sense that I have yet to see bettered. When I produced reference books of my own, it was the Penguin series to which I had to aspire.

Pre-Cinema History

Hermann Hecht (1923-1985) was a German Jewish graphic designer and lecturer who lived in Britain after 1939. His abiding passion (the word one has to keep using when describing the great reference works) was the magic lantern, and through it the origins of cinema, or pre-cinema as it is often called. It is a field of study where everything that is interesting about cinema is what happened before it started. Hecht gathered together every published work or other source that he could find, from the thirteenth century onwards, across the world, that traced the human need to recreate, or anticipate, the moving and projected image, from the speculative to the increasingly practical. 4,000 sources had been gathered before Hecht’s untimely death, but his daughter Ann Hecht achieved the remarkable in pulling it all together into publishable form (the BFI and Bowker Saur published it in 1993). Hecht’s idiosyncratic system of annotation means that Pre-Cinema History is one of the more bewildering of reference works, but its eccentricity is essential to its appeal. It is a world in which to be well lost.

Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases

I think I was fifteen when I was given a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. I didn’t know what it was but I knew that it was exactly what I wanted. I had a passion for reference books, for those works that defined how the world worked. None has done this so well as Roget, who created a new kind of reference work by the simple expedient of classifying words. Essential for finding that lost word, its practicality can someone blind you to its startling originality. It is the epitome of lateral thinking. Peter Mark Roger (1779-1869) was a physician, scientific experimenter, motion picture theorist (he came up with the concept of the ‘persistence of vision’) and lexicographer. His reference work was the outcome of a polymathic, interconnected mind. I never fail to marvel at the effort involved in its construction, first by Roget then by his notable successors (my first copy fell to pieces long ago, so I now rely on that edited by Betty Kirkpatrick). But I should use it more. Ideal, epitome, perfect, without parallel, essential – instead of recycling words for this post I should have had Roget at my side, urging me to try adroit, accomplished, resourceful, infallible, irreproachable, paragon, nonpareil…


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