- You Could Look It Up by Jack Lynch
Comprising 25 chapters, each punctuated by a puckish 1/2 chapter, You Could Look It Up is what members of the DSNA might call a romp through the annals of reference books. You yourselves, dear readers of Dictionaries, appear in chapter 8 1/2 as self-described geeks. The name is affectionate, however, and one feels the author is touching home base in this passage, just as Samuel Johnson was when in his Dictionary he defined “Grubstreet” as a place “much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems” and then added a shout out to his hood in Homeric Greek.
As one of us, Lynch loves dictionaries and all the various kinds of reference books like them that comprise multitudes of discrete pieces of information. There is no heavy theorizing about what makes a book a reference book. The question receives a common-sense answer: “a proper reference book is designed to facilitate consultation rather than reading through” (6). The 25 chapters treat 50 reference books in pairs, after the method of Plutarch, says Lynch (7), though in fact quite a few other books creep in around the edges. Mixed in are also interesting biographical sketches, occasional reflections on the author’s own bookshelves, and digressions (usually in the 1/2 chapters) on such subjects as plagiarism, indexes, the multiplication of editions, and delays in the execution of vast literary projects. The layout also includes shadow-framed boxes resembling index cards on which many of the works are anatomized in bibliographical terms, including title, author, publisher, and size. Size, however, is the key element as it is expressed in numbers of pages, page size, number of words, number of volumes, weight, and total area (calculated both in square feet and square meters). There’s an element of “book topping,” which is like weather topping or what Robert Frost called “sunset raving,” but we are amused, and amazed: if my score-keeping is accurate, the NUC (National Union Catalog) takes the biscuit for size, weighing in at 2.7 tons and occupying 11.8 acres of printed matter.
All the heterogeneity and biblio-gawkery of this volume, far from detracting from the heart of the book, qualifies it for inclusion itself in the world of reference books that it surveys. You Could Look It Up has features of several books that it treats, such as the Guinness Book of World’s Records, [End Page 185] Schott’s Original Miscellany, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and even Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica. Like those beloved works, You Could Look It Up is a book one can consult or browse with pleasure; it can also be read through with pleasure, but its true and lasting identity on my shelves will be as itself: a quirky, delightful reference book.
Choosing which reference books to cover cannot, of course, have been easy. Many great books are inevitably omitted (I might name Dwight Whitney’s Century Dictionary or the Encyclopedia Metropolitana, though the latter is mentioned, or the many dictionaries of national biography—including the Dictionary of National Biography and the American National Biography ADB). Lynch’s choices, however, are both sound and often very pleasantly surprising. For me (and I suspect this will be true for many of you) the obligatory chapters on Johnson’s Dictionary, the Encyclopédie, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and other famous books are less interesting than those on works that I never before encountered or bothered to consider. The treatment of Henry Briggs’s Arithmetica Logarithmica (1624) and Johannes Kepler’s Tabulae Rudolphine (1627), for example, fell well within my sphere of ignorance, and I was delighted (even thrilled) to learn about them. I am aware of J. Elmer’s Tables of Weights and Prices (1758) because Samuel Johnson’s Preface provides the only words in the book, but the works that Lynch discusses are the generic grandparents of Elmer’s petty book and immensely important time...