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.


When a Book Finds You

IMHO, the late Michael Crichton was one of the greatest high-concept writers of all time. What ideas that man had, and how well he executed them! I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager and have read almost all of his books.

I did not grow up wealthy, so mostly I scrounged around buying used paperbacks or whatever else I could afford. Hardbacks were a rare treat, but Crichton was one of the few authors whose new hardbacks I would shell out my hard-earned paper-route money for. On the left you can see my collection of his earliest books. Little did I know back in the 1970s that I was amassing a collection of “first editions.”

What seemed like a fortune then seems like a bargain now. The cover price of The Great Train Robbery, c. 1975, was $7.95.  (Lately I’ve been noticing that more and more hardbacks are hovering around the $30 mark  – worth every penny, of course.)

Books like The Great Train Robbery and Congo (which is one of my all-time favorite books) showed that Crichton not only had great ideas; he also had fun with his plots. That fun diminished a little when he got into hardcore thrillers later in his career, but it came back in his posthumous book, Pirate Latitudes.

Anyway, all of this is background. The one Crichton book I never managed to get my hands on, and never read, was The Terminal Man (c. 1972). Now, 45 years later, The Terminal Man found me. I was rummaging around in a secondhand shop in Hawthorne, NJ (Then & Now Consignment), and there it was, crammed among a bunch of dusty books – for a mere $2. Even better, it’s a first printing. The jacket isn’t in great shape, but so what?

Call it Serendipity, call it Fate … but the Universe wants me to read The Terminal Man, and so I shall. I’m saving it for my next vacation.

A Dose of Panacea for All



One of my literary heroes is F. Paul Wilson, author of the Repairman Jack series and many, many more works of storytelling genius.

I had the privilege of meeting FPW briefly during Bouchercon when it was held in Albany, NY a few years back. There I was, milling around, when who should walk past me but the great man himself. I was not about to miss the opportunity to babble about my fanboy-ism and to ask when we could expect the next Repairman Jack (RJ) book.

FPW grumpily but good-naturedly mentioned that he’d given all the RJ he was capable of giving and that it was time for him to move on. I suggested that perhaps P. Frank Winslow (a hack writer who’s a character in some of the later RJ books) might lend a hand, and that got a smile from Mr. Wilson. So, I left Bouchercon feeling like I’d had my brush with greatness, but also a bit bummed that the RJ series had come to an end. And then, lo and behold, we got three new books about Jack’s “Early Years”: Cold City, Fear City, and Dark City. Each one felt like a gift you get from a friend after the two of you have sworn that you are not exchanging Christmas gifts this year (or after your friend has told you at a convention not to hold your breath waiting for the next book in a series).

So, when I heard about a brand-new series from the Great One, I pre-ordered the first book, Panacea. It has all the trademarks of an FPW book, including secret societies, secret histories, twists and turns, and all that other good stuff. This time around, we have dual protagonists, Laura Fanning (a Long Island medical examiner who is part Mayan) and Rick Hayden, one tough cookie who is mighty handy with a Zip tie.  I raced through Panacea, and though one never knows quite what to expect from book to book, it seems like this new series will be somewhat like the RJ series, with each book having a unique plot that’s tied up by the end, along with an ongoing arc of dark spookiness.  Of course, I’m looking forward to the next one already.

In many ways I think fiction is like music – you like what you like, and there’s not always a rational explanation behind it. But I know exactly what I enjoy so much about FPW’s books. He is simply a superb storyteller, and he makes it all seem so effortless and easy. For all I know, he may sit over his keyboard and weep with frustration, self-doubt, and dark nights of the soul, but you’d never know it from reading any of his books. So, Mr./Dr. Wilson (a fellow New Jerseyan – woo hoo!), I salute you.

Lemon Up! for the New Year


As another year concludes, let us enjoy some blasts from the past…

The above bottles of LEMON UP shampoo and conditioner were waiting for me under the Christmas tree. Those of you who are also children of the 70s/80s may remember the original products, which claimed to have “the juice of an entire lemon” in each bottle. Now the product is back, at approximately ten times the price of the original.

Fans of the original LEMON UP may remember that the “lemon” that served as the bottle cap was as hard as cement and weighed about the same as an average cinderblock. If you dropped that cap on your foot in the shower – and sooner or later, everyone did – you had purple toes for at least a month.

The new bottles have the lemon attached as a flip top (you can see the horizontal lines in the lemons in the pic above). Haven’t tried these yet, but the new formula doesn’t smell quite as lemony and refreshing as I remember.

LEMON UP seems to be just one of many nostalgia products that are making a comeback. So, for some further strolling down memory lane:



Remember TAB? I remember my aunts drinking it at picnics in the 70s and also daring to taste it myself. I also remember it tasting absolutely wretched — note, however, that I was  a Coke man, full-on sugar, so anything with saccharine was bound to be a rude awakening. But, imagine my surprise when I was at a friend’s house a few months ago and I saw his wife surreptitiously sipping from a suspiciously pink can. Yes, indeed, Tab is back; and you know what? It doesn’t taste half bad. Pure artificial goodness, of course, but as diet drinks go, I think one could probably do worse.



I don’t think GRAPE NEHI has ever gone away, but I do miss the packaging that I remember with fondness — a glass bottle with a styrofoam wrapper that I had to peel fully off the bottle in order to feel satisfied with life. I was telling my nephew on Christmas Day that we used to go to the corner store when I was a kid – at that time, an individual can or bottle of soda cost a quarter. My nephew (11 years old) looked at me as if I were stark raving mad, but there is a precedent for that. I remember my father telling me that my grandfather used to earn $7 a week in the 1930s, and thinking my father was totally exaggerating.

Two more blasts from the past: POP ROCKS and SPACE DUST. SPACE DUST was more, well, dusty, while POP ROCKS were more, well, rocky. You stuck out your tongue, poured the dust and/or rocks onto it, and felt a weird popping sensation. At one point in my neighborhood, you had to wait in line to buy Space Dust, and there was a good chance that by the time you got the counter, the supply would have been sold out.

Crazy rumors swirled over these candies, kind of like the claims of reefer madness. People were swearing on a stack of Bibles that these candies gave you brain cancer, caused aneurysms, got you so high that you would fail a drug test and not get your driver’s license, and so on.

And speaking of rumors, remember this one?



Everyone loved BUBBLE YUM when the product was launched. A bit of context will help: Until I was a teenager (or a little younger), we were stuck with flat, hard gums like Juicy Fruit and Trident, which you had to chew like a horse to soften up. BUBBLE YUM was soft and oh-so-easy to chew. (Of course it was much easier to swallow accidentally, but let’s not interrupt this trip down memory lane with images of huge clots of bubble gum clogging up our digestive tracts.) All the kids were wild about this gum – and again, nobody could keep it in stock.

And then – the rumors hit. There were SPIDER EGGS in every chunk of Bubble Yum! Sales plummeted. The manufacturer took out full-page ads in newspapers across the country (even in my little suburban town) saying something along the lines of “There are some very bad rumors about our BUBBLE YUM, and we’re here to tell you they’re not true.”

The rumors died down and BUBBLE YUM is still available today, though I definitely prefer the old packaging to the newer packaging.

Finally, a tribute to …




Was ever a product more bizarrely named? In this, our age of sound bites, the tongue gets tied simply trying to say this five-worded product. As a grammarian who loves punctuation, I can’t help but notice that the product name is enclosed in quotation marks. The idea, of course, is that a handsome man is whispering those immortal words into the ear of a copiously coiffed young lady, but can we not interpret the quotation marks as “scare quotes” intended sarcastically? Might the label be implying “Oh Lord, your hair smells like a garbage dump” or “Sweet merciful heavens, your hair is so impregnated with chemicals, you might catch on fire at any moment”?

Of course, this was a “girl’s” shampoo, but I can tell you – the marketing worked. Every girl I knew used this shampoo. I THINK this shampoo’s heyday was more or less simultaneous with Farrah Fawcett’s heyday, and I think the marketing implied that every gal could look like Farrah, if only she had the good sense to use this shampoo.

The last shampoo I’m thinking of must be a failure as a product, because I can remember the tag line but not the name of the product. The commercials went something like “And she told two friends, and she told two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on.”  The faces on the screen kept multiplying geometrically, in a Brady Bunch-style matrix. I guess the idea was that you simply could not get away from this shampoo, and that you would die trying.

Happy 2017!