I am a notorious slut-glutton for words. The favoured objects of my affection have always been, and remain, reference books. I devoured them from early childhood on, even reading dictionaries on car-trips. I cannot look up a word without reading several pages worth of entirely irrelevant definitions. As a writer, this obsession comes in handy: reference books are, or should be, our dearest associates. I own a slew of them: dictionaries, encyclopedias, volumes on style and grammar, miscellaneous fact-books, how-to’s, market tomes. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the escalating mountain of reference-for-writers material.
The best way for someone like me to avoid the siren’s song of reference books is to be exceedingly picky. If a volume is not enlightening, inspiring or practical with an interesting spin then I simply refuse to bring it home. I think that these guidelines are appropriate for any writer to follow. The “Useful Reads” column will spotlight books that have passed my stringent rules: as such, I am happy to recommend them for your use.
I am a savvy, technology-aware writer. I realize that the Internet exists. I realize that search engines are marvelous, time-saving niches: I use them frequently. They are, in their limited capacity, addicting. Nothing, however, beats the tactile pleasure of picking up a hefty book, balancing it on your knees, and idly or hurriedly flipping through its pages. You know that, eventually, you will find what you are looking for, and many other fantastical things besides.
The New York Public Library Desk Reference is the perfect volume for all of your fact-finding-or-affirming needs.It is laid out in neat, easy-to navigate chapters. It covers much of the same ground that you would find in an encyclopedia without the lengthy entries: it is precise, detailed, and to-the-point yet it is more all-encompassing than a regular almanac. It calls itself “The most valuable answer book you will ever own”, which is certainly an accurate assessment. But be forewarned: it is definitely a traditional read . If you are looking for irreverent, dark or odd factoids, then you are better off picking up a copy of that wee gem, Schott’s Original Miscellany.
With the famous stone lions decorating the outside, it touches upon everything from Frost Dates to Popes, Wine Selection to Royalty. As with any reference book worth its list price, it sucks me in every time that I open the covers. The New York Public Library is staffed with professionals who know there stuff better than anyone in the business. They have distilled that knowledge into roughly a thousand pages of practical information. Finding exactly the fact or figure that you need can be done with immense speed, and in less time than searching the Web would require. As long as you do not let yourself get carried away into mini-raptures of new-found but irrelevant wisdom, as I am apt to do (“What is this? A list of diacritical marks? Heaven!”), this can be a critical tool in allowing you to devote less time to research, and more for writing. Unless, of course, you are a word-fact geek like me, wherein meandering through the pages is half of the point, and all of the pleasure.