NPR logo A Reference Guide To Reference In 'You Could Look It Up'

Book Reviews

A Reference Guide To Reference In 'You Could Look It Up'

You Could Look It Up

The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia

by Jack Lynch

Hardcover, 453 pages |

purchase

Buy Featured Book

Title
You Could Look It Up
Subtitle
The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia
Author
Jack Lynch

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Of the many problems facing dictionary authors past and present, the most predatory of them seem to be — in order — time, politics, and ghost words. And if you're already pulling up a tab to Google "ghost words," You Could Look it Up is written just for you. A casual but fascinating read that feels like sneaking into a library after hours, it offers an absorbing glimpse into the world-changing and frequently turbulent history of the reference shelf.

Jack Lynch is no stranger to these rigors and mysteries; he's also the author of The Lexicographer's Dilemma, which traced the mercurial English language from Shakespeare to the modern day. With You Could Look it Up, he attempts an ambitiously brisk history of reference systems and the social context that makes them iconic. Though dictionaries and encyclopedias obviously take the lion's share of the mentions, Lynch has gathered some far-ranging offerings for this catalog: The Code of Hammurabi, an index of logarithms, a Dutch/Japanese language primer for traders, and Emily Post's social guide stand shoulder to shoulder with Samuel Johnson's seminal dictionary.

Lynch is excellent at providing context for his choices, but it's no surprise that in narrowing world history down to only fifty standout works, there are some snubs. The Kama Sutra, which included world-famous erotic advice and illustrations, gets mentioned among the sex manuals but isn't one of the touchstone texts. (Official honors go to the intriguing Aristotle's Masterpiece and 1761's pseudonymous Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies.) Not to mention the online elephant in the room — Lynch readily concedes that "This is what progress looks like," but his enthusiasm about massive printed library card catalogues can't help but feel bittersweet in the shadow of Wikipedia.

However, if there's one thing that You Could Look it Up is very clear about, it's that those omissions, admissions, and obsolescences are part of the reference game. Lynch makes no bones about the fact that every reference text is a de facto historical artifact, and he lovingly dissects the idiosyncrasies of the authors behind the works. (If it seems odd to think of a dictionary having personality, set Samuel Johnson's system alongside his predecessors — you might as well be looking at a self-portrait.) One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that, even with very little space dedicated to biography, the book treats human fallibility as not just a part of the process, but its most crucial one.

All the human passion that goes into this seemingly-staid work makes us us more appreciative of those who sit down and decide a subject of study needs a darned catalog already. It also highlights the often-sticky nature of the business. Rivalries fester — enjoy the dictionary wars between Samuel Webster and former assistant Joseph Worcester! — and people's prejudices come out in their work. Take 1886's Hobson-Jobson, described as a "Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases," which includes gems like "Home always means England; no one calls India home;" as Lynch points out, "the book ends up being a social history despite itself."

And maybe that's the point. The more you read about selective edits and creator bias, the more the history of reference material becomes a stew rather than a tidy timeline, and all the more interesting for its lumps. In writing a reference book about reference books, Lynch ends up in a conversation with the nature of lexicography itself. Those ghost words — accidents that get reprinted elsewhere, given invisible authority until someone realizes they don't exist — are part of a long tradition of reference work, a casualty of attempting to bring order to the universe. And it might seem strange to say that the overall effect of all that endless chaos is comforting, but that's how You Can Look it Up ends up feeling. There's no such thing as an objective account — there's just great reading in what's left behind.

Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Persona.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.