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.


Omer said...

Have you thought about asking Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia? He would probably have some interesting things to say about reference works.

I'd also ask Stephen Colbert--more for the free advertising you'd get if he takes it up rather than his opinion on reference works, although I imagine he would have some nice nuggets for you.

Anonymous said...

Who does the crossword puzzle for The Times?

Fatou Jobe said...


Ian McEwan's books are always laden with research (perhaps too much!) so you could approach him too. Yes, good one Anonymous, regarding The Times crossword compiler.


Anonymous said...

You might add George Soros to the list. More interesting than Richard Posner, I should think. Re Amartya, that's a good thought. Ditto with Anatole Kaletsky or Gillian Tett. Drop me a line.

Alison Barthelemy said...

Perhaps not very profound, and arguably useful to you, but the first reference book I experienced as a tyke was "My Book of First Facts", a little one-volume preschool/elementary level encyclopedia.

# ISBN-10: 0816012733
# ISBN-13: 978-0816012732

And I cannot go a day without referencing thesaurus.com, rhymezone.com, and onelook.com

Anonymous said...

Hi Jack,
maybe you've already thought of George Steiner who's written an excellent collection of essays, some of which are devoted to books and the arts of reading (such as "the Uncommon Reader")
Good luck

kls said...

How about consulting with Simon Winchester, author of _The Professor and the Madman_ (about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary)?

Paula L. said...

This isn't exactly Haute Lit, but I bet that writers of mystery novels and thrillers have interesting things to say about the reference works they use. I'm an as-yet-unpublished mystery writer, and I find myself continually referring to the Howdunit series (published by Writers' Digest) for details of police procedure, evidence collection, the effects of gunshot wounds on the human body, etc.

Anonymous said...

Suggestion 1: Have you thought of asking museum curators what reference books they might use? They do also compose catalogues for their collections, & of course are involved in the production of coffee table art books and the like. They might also encounter compilers of other reference books who are doing work on visual media.

Suggestion 2: Not planned for in your proposal, but: Movie encyclopedias, like the Internet Movie Database? There's also the All Music guide. Looking into those publications might yield some interesting compilers that you can ask questions to. Perhaps some film critics would be grateful for the attention.

Suggestion 3: Don't know if you've sent out the questionnaires yet, but you may want frame some of the questions more positively: Instead of "Is there a reference work you can't do without?" which is a yes/no question & optional to answer, ask: "What reference books do you find most useful in your daily work?"

Or again, more personal-sounding questions on the subject of remembering reference books:

What is your first memory of a reference book? What reference work was most frequently consulted in your household?