You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

Jack Lynch. Bloomsbury, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-0-8027-7752-2
Lynch (The Lexicographer’s Dilemma), a English professor at Rutgers University, gives a lively, learned history of reference books. Admiring their “concentrated wisdom,” Lynch selects 50 key works for being trailblazers, notably controversial, highly influential, or simply eccentric. Using a sometimes puzzling design, he pairs the books and explores them in 25 separate chapters, each followed by a shorter chapter on an associated subject. Lynch successfully matches Diderot’s L’Encyclopédie and Encyclopedia Britannica. More strained is linking Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography with the Domesday Book. Coupling George Grove’s A Dictionary of Music and Musicians with Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society feels particularly contrived. Elsewhere, Lynch contrasts the Académie Française’s precision with Samuel Johnson’s idiosyncrasy, and compares Noah Webster’s American Dictionary to the Grimm brothers’ Deutsches Wörterbuch as exercises in nation building. For science and medicine, Lynch includes Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, Gray’s Anatomy, and The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He ends with Wikipedia, which he considers an encyclopedist’s dream come true. Exhibiting a taste for the unusual, he also includes a list of unlikely titles such as the American Rabbit Breeders Association’s Standard of Perfection. Anyone who enjoys reference books will embrace this erudite compilation and Lynch’s appreciative, fluent commentary. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 11/02/2015
Release date: 02/23/2016
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