Friday, 12 October 2007

Reference Books

What is a reference book? The answer, according to a couple of them, is:-.
A book containing facts, statistics, biographical information, or other such information so as to make it a valuable tool for answering reference ... A book designed to be consulted for specific information rather than to be read from cover to cover.
Unfortunately my local bookshop is unaware of this. It includes in its reference book section a load of books designed to be read from cover to cover and whose authors would probably be quite upset if their work was only used for occasional reference or just dipped into and put down again. Biographies of scientist and explorers, for example, seem to find their way here instead of the biography section.
Perhaps the person who dictates where the books go was brought up as a librarian in the days when “reference” was simply the opposite of ”lending” - i.e. a book which the library wished to keep within its own doors and which frequently included ‘cover to cover’ books which were rare or expensive or irreplaceable.
By contrast I have the occasional habit of reading true reference books all the way through. In 1967/8 I read the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Literature from Abana to Zwingli - some 567 pages of small print. Whilst I forgot a lot of the information as quickly as I read it the rest formed a tremendously useful backdrop to my future education and the ability to answer silly quiz questions. Others that have attracted me enough to work my way through them included dictionaries of English Folklore, Superstitions, and Pub Names, together with some of the Penguin dictionaries like Biology, Art and Music.
The latest one I am hooked upon (and up to the letter D) is the Oxford Dictionary of Catchphrases. You may not want to wade through the whole thing as I am doing but if you can get hold of a copy it is well worth dipping into it.


  1. There are some things about people (even people as close as a close Brother)that are almost unbelievable. But this revelation explains a lot!!!

  2. Do the Schott's miscellany/almanacs count as reference? I tend to sit and read those in a single sitting on Christmas Day!

  3. They are certainly on the reference shelf in Linghams and I suspect most people who actually buy them only dip into them. So welcome to the reference book reading club!

  4. This springs to mind - "At painful times, when composition is impossible and reading is not enough, grammars and dictionaries are excellent for distraction" - Elizabeth Barrett Browning


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