You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia by Jack Lynch. Bloombury Press, 2016. 9780802777522. 464pp.
In twenty-five chapters Jack Lynch, a Professor of English at Rutgers University, describes fifty seminal reference works throughout the ages. For example, chapter six describes the centuries-long impact of Avicenna’s (ibn Sina’s) million-word, encyclopedic and authoritative The Canon of Medicine then contrasts it with the Anglo-Saxon Bald’s Leechcraft which, in a more practical 32,000 words, gave Roman prescriptions (and included substitutes readily available to Britons).
Lynch knows that reference works are not static, despite presenting some that are literally carved in stone or baked into clay. As of publication Grey’s Anatomy was in its 40th edition, and Lynch says no text nor drawings from the original remain in the current version. That stalwart desk reference for physical science, The CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, is in its 95th edition and going strong, although its author, the Chemical Rubber Corporation, hasn’t sold any rubber or chemicals in decades. (Lynch always tries to encapsulate the publication history of each of the reference works he highlights, right down to the page count and the weight!)
Lynch buffers these chapters with shorter sections in which he discusses trends in the genre, like the transition from scrolls to books. Most amusing is “Ghosts and Montweazels” in which Lynch discusses accidental and deliberate errors. Publishers and compilers commonly err as to the scope and scale of their projects; century-long efforts are not unknown. Some works even have revisions before they’re completed.
Great dictionaries and encyclopedias that defined languages and even nations are covered, but Lynch gives science and technology its due. Chapter 10 discusses those aides to computation and description, Henry Briggs’ Arithmetica Logarithmica and Johannes Kepler’s Tabalae Rudolphinae. “We are left with the strange paradox that mathematical tables were rendered entirely obsolete by the computer, although tables were the main reason computers were invented,” Lynch writes.
There are also reference books that are just plain fun. Lynch briefs us on a select group of games rule books and sports record books. He also writes about a sex manual which was in print for centuries, and a 1761 directory of London sex workers! If you’re wondering how to keep all these references organized, Lynch describes the efforts of the great catalogers to bring order and utility to the world’s libraries. (Yes, library catalogs are reference works.) He also reveals how his own home bookshelf is arranged.
Lynch confesses the printed reference work may be in need of a eulogy. Everything is moving online. If it’s a eulogy he’s written, it’s a great one.
Thanks to Robert in San Diego for this guest review!