The Reference Desk

For as long as I can remember, I have been a reference geek. I have an entire shelf of reference books collected over the last 30 years or so. Some may argue that reference books went out with the Internet, but for sheer editorial quality … ease of use … touchability/tangibility … I don’t think a good, old-fashioned reference book can be beat.

Here are some of my favorites.


The Little, Brown Handbook is a college writing handbook, now in its 13th edition (I also have the 8th edition on my shelf). I worked for the company that publishes this book (at that time, called Longman Publishers) in the 1990s, and I remember seeing this book presented to the sales force. The editor at the time talked about the excellence of the index, noting that The Little, Brown Handbook‘s index was almost twice as long as that of any other college English handbook.

And you know what … that index makes a huge difference. I think we’ve all dealt with poorly indexed books where we can’t find any of the information we need. Here the index tells you exactly where you need to go to find the info you seek.

The wonderful thing about a handbook (and this is going to sound strange) is how ignorant it makes you feel. After decades of writing and editing, I think of myself as pretty well versed in all things grammatical, but I still find myself (occasionally) having to look up things like the finer points of capitalization. Plus, the reference guidelines promulgated by the Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA) seem to undergo more-or-less constant revision. The Little, Brown Handbook puts it all in one handy place.


The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition, c. 2010) offers over 1,000 pages of pure editorial information, including sections on foreign languages (including American Sign Language), setting math, and (my favorite subheading in the book), “Epithets, Kinship Names, and Personifications.”

I bought this copy a few years ago (I needed it for a project I was working on), and the copyright page tells me that it was part of the 14th printing. Wow. That does my heart good. It means that maybe I’m not an old crank after all — that there are many others out there who like their reference books in print, not online. (Disclaimer: I am completely in favor of electronic publishing — anything that makes books and information available in the ways that readers want it — but I disagree with a recent blog that I read, in which the blogger called print books “artifacts.” I think they’re alive and well, and loved.)


I’ve had my copy of The Oxford Companion to English Literature since college. The state of the dust jacket hints at how often I’ve gone to this book for reminders about plots, characters, themes, and literary terminology. There’s something so perfect about the entries in this book–as if Margaret Drabble pored over every single word to keep each entry as tight, enlightening, and useful as possible.

All of which reminds me to pontificate that those who write reference works are great unsung heroes of culture and knowledge. What an enormous undertaking, what an honor, what an accomplishment.


The Macmillan Visual Dictionary is a reminder that every component of everything has a name.  One of the most famous “I never knew it had a name” is the aglet, defined as  “a metal or plastic tube fixed tightly around each end of a shoelace.” (You’ll find “aglet” on p. 354, “Parts of a shoe,” along with vamp, welt, nose of the quarter, and waist.) This is a “desert island” book for me — one to take with me if I were marooned.

I used to have this book on my desk at one of my former jobs, and whenever kids would come in for “Bring Your Children to Work Day,” one of them would end up disappearing with it. Then the other kids would gather round and they’d all be paging through it together. So, my copy has its share of lollipop stains…

Another visual dictionary that I love (though I refer to it less often) is the DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary 2000.


I bought Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literatureby Martin Seymour-Smith, for 25 cents at a yard sale. What’s noteworthy here is that this volume is not “edited” by Seymour-Smith; it was written by him.

For those of you who think your reference books should be composed of objective, just-the-facts entries, this book would send you into shock. Every entry is utterly subjective — this is one literature scholar’s opinion of the leading literary lights of the twentieth century, and the dude pulls no punches.  Here’s part of the entry on Ayn Rand:

“Unfortunately, her crypto-totalitarian and ultra-simplistic ideas have had some influence on the conservatively bred young, since they allow people to be ruthless without a bad conscience … Her best known novel is The Fountainhead (1943), a projection (as she admitted) of her own aspirations in the form of a travesty of Frank Lloyd Wright. As critics observed at the time, it–like her other books–is offensively ill written.”

On Tennessee Williams:

“The later and more experimental plays are generally less effective, since they only exploit the vein that was so successful in The Glass Menagerie and Streetcar. But they are always interesting studies in hysterical behavior and the author’s integrity, despite his extremes and increasing limitations, is sound. … With Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) and The Night of the Iguana (1962) Williams began to “think”: to work out a post-naturalist system as man-as-victim-of-nature. The result has been poor and feeble.”

Seymour-Smith eviscerates more than he praises, which makes this book a guilty pleasure.



The thing about reading, writing, and loving mysteries is — you could spend every minute of your life reading them, and you’d still only scratch the surface of the genre. The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing can help fill in the gaps. Occasionally I like to open to a random page and look for a writer or book I haven’t read. I’ve had many superb reading experiences as a result — two that come to mind are Mickey Spillane’s The Deep and Willkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

(The spooky shadow you see looming over that jacket is … me! The jacket’s encased in plastic, and the lighting in my office is such that I got imprinted on the book when taking a photo of it. Cool.)


I must tip my hat to Mignon Fogarty, a/k/a Grammar Girl. I just love her. She writes with such affection for the language, recognizing it as a living thing that changes and evolves. She’s the ultimate pragmatist, and while she’s not afraid to take sides in some of the great grammatical debates, she does so with humor — and with the attitude that these debates are fun, and worth having — and that in many cases, the best rule is “to each his or her own.” Mignon gave me the freedom I needed to decide that I want to capitalize prepositions with more than four letters, and to start a full sentence after a colon with a capital letter.


I close with my all-time favorite, my go-to book, Words Into Type. The third edition, c. 1974, is the most recent. Clearly this book has done something right, because I still see it on bookstores’ shelves.

Like The Little, Brown Handbook, this one has a fantastic, exhaustive index. It’s hard to put a finger on why this book is so beloved by its many fans, but I think I have it figured out: Unlike grammar handbooks, Words into Type is as much about book-making as it is about writing. It never steers me wrong; after I’ve read the section I’m consulting, I feel a palpable sense of “Ahh … that was good.”

I suppose it is fair to say that it may be outdated now, as books aren’t made the way the used to be … but Words into Type transcends time. The man who hired me into my first job after college gave me a copy on my first day, and I’ve had it ever since.