01 June 2010

You Could Look It Up: Suggestions Solicited

My next trade book is under contract; it's provisionally titled You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Babylon to Wikipedia. It'll be a whirlwind tour of reference books, broadly understood — dictionaries (general and specialized), encyclopedias, atlases, concordances, medical and legal compendia, sports statistics, even telephone directories and tables of logarithms. I'll also include plenty of digressions, in the form of sidebars or interchapters, on things like the history of alphabetical order, people who've read reference books from cover to cover, ghost words and mountweazels, and so on.

Something that has come to me since I got the contract: I'm keen to get input from prominent bookish people on their experience with reference works. I'd love to know what, say, Umberto Eco or Richard Posner have to say about reference books. I'm therefore putting together a very brief questionnaire — maybe five or six questions — and sending them to a few dozen such people. I'll go through channels when possible, and resort to cold-calling when necessary. The answers will then appear throughout the book in sidebars, little boxes, to accompany the main text.

There are two things on which I'll be grateful for advice from readers. The first is whom to approach. I've got a few dozen names in mind already, including people like Sven Birkerts, Alberto Manguel, Paul Krugman, Oliver Sacks, Mary Beard, David Lodge, Pierre Bayard, Simon Schama, Doris Lessing, Atul Gawande, Amartya Sen, Seamus Heaney, A. S. Byatt, Steven Pinker, Alan Lightman, and Isabel Allende. I know how to get to some of them, and will be looking for approaches to others.

I welcome suggestions for more names to add to the list — who will have interesting things to say about dictionaries, encyclopedias, and so on? I'd like the list to be as international as possible (European publishers have expressed interest in the book); I also want diversity of interests: poets, novelists, historians, theologians, scientists, legal scholars, and so on.

The second question is what exactly to ask them. Requests for free-form essays is unlikely to get any replies; instead I need a small number of focused questions. Here's what I've got now:

  • Is there a reference work you couldn't do your job without?
  • Do you have a favorite obscure reference work that deserves to be better known?
  • Do you have a favorite entry in a reference work?
  • What was the first reference work that caught your attention when you were young and why?
  • How do you organize your own reference collection in your house, apartment, or office?
I'm not especially happy with these, but don't know where else to go. So: what to add, delete, clarify? I'm after amusing and enlightening nuggets, not profound meditations.