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

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

by Jack Lynch


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You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia by Jack Lynch

"Knowledge is of two kinds," said Samuel Johnson in 1775. "We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." Today we think of Wikipedia as the source of all information, the ultimate reference. Yet it is just the latest in a long line of aggregated knowledge--reference works that have shaped the way we've seen the world for centuries.

You Could Look It Up chronicles the captivating stories behind these great works and their contents, and the way they have influenced each other. From The Code of Hammurabi, the earliest known compendium of laws in ancient Babylon almost two millennia before Christ to Pliny's Natural History; from the 11th-century Domesday Book recording land holdings in England to Abraham Ortelius's first atlas of the world; from Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language to The Whole Earth Catalog to Google, Jack Lynch illuminates the human stories and accomplishment behind each, as well as its enduring impact on civilization. In the process, he offers new insight into the value of knowledge.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802777522
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/23/2016
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 1,072,003
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Jack Lynch is a professor of English at Rutgers University. He specializes in English literature of the eighteenth century and the history of the English language. He is the author of several books including The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park and Samuel Johnson's Insults: A Compendium of Snubs, Sneers, Slights, and Effronteries from the Eighteenth-Century Master. He lives in New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

You Could Look It Up

The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

By Jack Lynch

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Copyright © 2015 Jack Lynch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8027-7752-2



It all begins with the written word.

"Reference" means nothing without writing. "In a primary oral culture," wrote Walter J. Ong, the twentieth century's greatest theorist of orality, "the expression 'to look up something' is an empty phrase: it would have no conceivable meaning. Without writing, words as such have no visual presence. ... You might 'call' them back — 'recall' them. But there is nowhere to 'look' for them." But because we live in a bookish and data-rich culture, we all know what it means to "look" for information. You Could Look It Up is an account of fifty great reference books, from the third millennium B.C.E. to the present, all of them ambitious attempts to collect a vast amount of knowledge and to present it to the world in a usable form.

For some, the reference book is the emblem of pedantry, sterility, dead facts rather than living wisdom. Charles Dickens gave us Thomas Gradgrind, the dry-as-dust pedant whose mantra is "Fact, fact, fact!" Sadly, the word knowledge is often paired with rote, as if a knowledge of facts necessarily precludes a deeper understanding or an imaginative engagement.

"Dictionaries do not spring into being," Sidney Landau wrote. "People must plan them, collect information, and write them. ... No other form of writing is at once so quixotic and so intensely practical." But when the public thinks about the people who write reference books — if the public ever thinks about them — they probably call to mind what Samuel Johnson called "harmless drudges." Howard Hawks's 1941 screwball comedy Ball of Fire sparkles with a script co-written by Billy Wilder. It features a team of socially inept professors, modeled on Snow White's seven dwarfs, who live together in a big house and work on an encyclopedia containing all the world's knowledge. Gary Cooper, brilliantly cast against type as Professor Bertram Potts, stands at the head of this sorry crew of encyclopedists, lexicographers, and grammarians including Professors Gurkakoff, Magenbruch, Oddley, and Peagram. They are all utterly stymied when confronted with the va-vavoom burlesque-queen heroine, Katherine "Sugarpuss" O'Shea, played by Barbara Stanwyck.

But the actual world of reference books, overflowing with fact, fact, fact, is positively exuberant, passionate, bursting with knowledge, and their authors are not always sexless cartoon characters but include quirky geniuses, revolutionary firebrands, and impassioned culture warriors, many of them with the unflagging intellectual energy of a whirling dervish. You Could Look It Up tells the story of two emperors, a Spanish naturalist who sailed his ship toward an erupting volcano and died in the falling ash, the inventor of the decimal point, the philosophers who were blamed for starting the French Revolution, the German folklorists whose gory tales still frighten children, and an Oxford classicist whose daughter Alice went down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.

You Could Look It Up is partly a call to read, or at least read in, these books, and to get to know the people who wrote them. A reference book collects a civilization's memoranda to itself. When we turn an ancient dictionary's pages, we read something never meant for our eyes, and we get to overhear the dead talking among themselves. That is why reference books have much to teach us, even when they are obsolete — especially when they are obsolete. Of course we can learn all sorts of trivia from old dictionaries and encyclopedias, but also much more than trivia. In looking at these old books we get the chance to look through them, at the people who created them and at the worlds they inhabited. When we discover that human beings were divided into five groups in the first Encyclopadia Britannica — American, European, Asiatic, African, and "monstrous" — we get a glimpse of early "scientific" race theory coming into being. An old atlas is worthless if we want to locate events in today's news, but it tells us plenty about how the world looked to another culture. An encyclopedia written before Columbus crossed the Atlantic says nothing useful about the smartphone, but it is one culture's way of describing the entirety of their physical, intellectual, and spiritual worlds. Even a book filled with numerical tables can end up telling a story about the incipient Industrial Revolution.

The dictionary, the encyclopedia, the atlas, the legal code — all act to distill knowledge. Distillation is the right metaphor. As any decent encyclopedia will explain, distillation removes impurities and gives us a concentrated essence. A solution goes into the alembic, where it is heated to boiling; the volatile spirits separate from the water and are captured, then allowed to condense on the other side. Out comes a purer form of the spirit — in our case, knowledge. The reference book is concentrated wisdom.

Even when concentrated, the information can still be overwhelming. A reference book is the product of a society trying to deal with more knowledge than even the most committed sage can hope to hold in memory. Reference books are big, because no one needs an encyclopedia with ten entries. Only when the body of information becomes too large to keep in our heads do we decide to offload it to paper and expand our memories into offsite storage.

And the more virtual memory a reference promises us, the more enthusiastic we are about its contents. At the heart of the reference genre is the Renaissance ideal of copia, Latin for "copiousness" or "fullness." Desiderius Erasmus, the very model of the Renaissance man and one of the most expansive minds the world has ever known, devoted a whole book to copia, the ebullient overflowing of words and ideas. He loved books that were crammed with knowledge, so much so that they were almost bursting at the seams, and everyone who has ever fallen in love with a dictionary or an encyclopedia has the same passion. This book tries to capture some of the copiousness that marks the great reference books.

Reference books shape the world. Encyclopedists and lexicographers rarely discover new facts, but by organizing and categorizing the old ones they can influence whole fields of knowledge. They determine what kinds of questions a civilization can ask about itself. Those who work under the imprimatur of some prestigious organization — The Catholic Encyclopedia, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia — proclaim unquestionable doctrine to the masses. Lexicographers may have no ambitions beyond telling an accurate story about a word, but they have determined the outcome in decisions of the Supreme Court. The compilers of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders can, by declaring a given condition to be a psychiatric illness, save a criminal from the gallows or exclude a qualified person from government service. And yet, even though these books have all been compiled by fallible human beings, much of the world looks on them as unimpeachable. I'll argue — with only a small bit of exaggeration — that the reference book is responsible for the spread of empires, the scientific revolution, the French Revolution, and the invention of the computer.

* * *

What, exactly, is a reference book? In 1911, the librarian Gilbert Ward offered a succinct explanation: "Definition of a reference book. — A reference book is a book which is used for looking up particular points rather than for reading through."3 Most books get their worth from their entirety, and it makes no sense to read just chapter 37 of Don Quixote or book 11, chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov. Reference works, on the other hand, are meant to be useful in pieces. Information is extracted from its original context, sliced, and rearranged, with the important level of organization being not the book or the chapter but the "entry," which is expected to make sense on its own. These entries are usually organized arbitrarily, designed to be conveniently located in answering questions that users might ask. That word "users" is a significant one: most books have readers, but reference books have users. Still, it is not always easy to draw a line between reference works and others. Is a cookbook a reference book? An anthology? Almost any compilation could count. In fact, any book in the world can become a reference book if we read in it to find a specific piece of information. But a proper reference book is designed to facilitate consultation rather than reading through.

Of course, a reference book need not even be a book. The works I discuss here include many garden-variety books, but there are also four-ton slabs of basalt and globally interconnected networks of semiconductors. Reference works have taken the form of stone tablets, papyrus scrolls, and numerical tables. They can be as grand as multi-volume encyclopedias prepared by learned academies or as homely as stock reports and racing forms on cheap newsprint. Even TV Guide, issued for more than half a century as a weekly magazine, is a kind of reference work. And of course the most important reference works of the last few decades have been in electronic form, first on diskettes, then on CD-ROMs, and now on the Internet. "Book" is a more elegant word than "text," so I'll use it in this work, but usually in this expanded sense.

* * *

You Could Look It Up does not pretend to be comprehensive, touching on all the world's important reference works — no book could do that. Instead, it contains accounts of fifty great works I find interesting, maybe because they are the first of their kind, maybe the biggest, or the most learned, or the most controversial, or the most influential, or maybe just the most eccentric or quixotic. I have borrowed my method from the ancient biographer Plutarch: each of the twenty-five chapters focuses on an exemplary pair of major reference works. Plutarch's Parallel Lives put important Greeks next to important Romans (Theseus and Romulus, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, Demosthenes and Mark Antony) and then explored the similarities and differences between them to highlight what was distinct about each figure. In my pairings I choose two more or less contemporary works on related subjects and set them in their historical context. Limiting my main discussion to just fifty books means many things are neglected. The reference house has many mansions, and I have had to omit too many important works, even whole genres: almanacs, timelines, biographical dictionaries, price guides, gazetteers, calendars, bibliographies, dictionaries of slang and regionalisms, faux reference books such as Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, compendia of proverbs, and thesauruses did not make the cut. But I do get to discuss some of the most famous reference works — the dictionaries of Johnson, Webster, and the Grimms, Diderot's Encyclopedie and the Encyclopadia Britannica, Gray's Anatomy — with attention to what made them so noteworthy and, whenever it can be known, the personalities behind the books. Besides the central pair, each chapter touches on other relevant works, setting the major books in a longer historical context — sometimes looking back centuries to the origins of the form, sometimes looking ahead to the present day. Tucked between the chapters are shorter interludes that introduce stories that would otherwise go untold in a strictly linear history. In telling fifty little stories, I hope one big story emerges, as well as histories of some of the major reference genres — dictionary, encyclopedia, atlas, and so on.

I repeatedly ask a few questions: What need prompted someone to bring all this information together in one place? Who decided to rise to the challenge? What made them the right people for the job — or, at least, what made them think they were qualified? How did they go about their work? What carried them through the years, even decades, of work it took to compile these often million-word-plus compendia? What is in these books, and what is omitted? What did the world make of them? Finally, and most important, what do they tell us about the mentalities of the ages that produced and used them?

* * *

You Could Look It Up is both a history of and a love letter to the great dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases. It is also, I fear, something of a eulogy: we may be approaching the end of the era of the reference book. That is not to say reference is dead — in the information age it is more essential than ever. But the references of the future almost certainly will not be books in the traditional sense. Every technological revolution has shaken up the organization of information. Advances such as alphabetical order, page numbers, tables of contents, and indexes made it possible to organize old information for new purposes — and, as a side effect, revealed the limitations of the old technologies. As we begin thinking about new ways we might use an old book, we discover new things we would like to do with it, new ways of searching it.

The change we are living through now, in which hard-copy dictionaries and encyclopedias are becoming harder and harder to sell and publishers are scrambling to figure out what will work online, makes it all the more urgent that we understand the history of the genre. "As the information banks available on our computers expand vertiginously in the present," writes Anthony Grafton, "we have realized that we do not understand the ways in which information was created and transmitted in the past. New forms of cultural history are taking shape to fill this gap: histories that emphasize not the formal content of ideas but the institutions and practices that enabled them to be created and transmitted."

* * *

Whenever I quote works in English I follow original spellings, including those of foreign names and titles, except when they require special characters and diacritical marks that are not available in most typefaces — there I have used the closest equivalents available to me. Outside quotations, I give names and titles in the most familiar forms. I provide the sources of all quotations in the endnotes, though when the source is obvious from context — when I quote the definition for apron in John Kersey's New English Dictionary, for example — I do not bother with notes. A handful of uncited quotations from living writers came from personal communication, and uncited translations from French, Italian, Spanish, German, Latin, and Greek are my own.

I've scattered some "vital statistics" about the major titles throughout the book: boxes give the full title of each reference work, the person primarily responsible for it, the principle on which it is organized, and the date of publication of the first edition. To give some idea of relative sizes, I give the number of volumes, pages, and entries, and, whenever I can manage, the physical size and even the weight of the book, along with the total surface area of all the pages, counting both front and back. (It's usually impossible to give measurements for books from before the age of print, and even printed books can be bound or trimmed differently, so consider the numbers approximations.) Word count is the total number of words, not merely the number of entries. (This book is around 125,000 words; the Encyclopedie would fill about 160 volumes this size, and Pauly-Wissowa is about 440 times longer than this book.) If the book had an afterlife, I give the latest edition. Round numbers are my best estimates; precise figures mean someone has counted, usually with the aid of a computer.



Laws of the Ancient World

The Code of Hammurabi c. 1754 B.C.E.

Justinian Corpus juris civilis 529–34 C.E.

A list as pithy as the Ten Commandments fits comfortably in the memory. It can be learned quickly and passed on by oral tradition. As a society grows increasingly complex, though, a short list of thou-shalt-nots is insufficient.

It is easy to forbid murder, for instance, even to guarantee an eye for an eye. But how to settle the terms of a no-fault divorce, or establish a fair price for caulking a boat, or adjudicate rival claims about agricultural fees after a storm destroys much of a crop? As legal precedents multiply, as finer and finer distinctions arise, as more and more circumstances have to be accounted for, it becomes impossible for even the wisest sage to keep everything in his head. The most capacious memory eventually breaks down.


Excerpted from You Could Look It Up by Jack Lynch. Copyright © 2015 Jack Lynch. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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