Favourite Reference Books

13 posts / 0 new
Last post
Favourite Reference Books





I was one of those weird kids who'd sit around reading dictionaries and encyclopedias instead of doing whatever it was we were supposed to be doing in school.  Any skills I picked up while doing this helped out later in life when I had to consult works such as The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals 1824-1900 (it seems to be online now) or the 26 volumes of The Oxford English Dictionary.

One of the perquisites of my job is that I receive "professional development" money. Some of my colleagues use their dough to go to conferences or take yoga lessons.  I've been buying reference books. Last year I bought a CD-Rom of Brian Rust's Jazz and Ragtime Records 1897-1942, which comes in handy when I need to check on recording dates, personnel or to find out such things as what name the Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded under on certain tunes.

A couple of days ago I received a used copy of another Rust work, British Dance Bands on Record 1911-1945. This one's been out of print for some time, and is pretty hard to find. I've seen it priced at $1250 or more, so I snapped it up when I saw it on sale for $350. What the heck, if I don't use the money I lose it.

Last week a CD-Rom of the OED - yes, all 26 volumes on a little disk - arrived in my mailbox. Now I spend hours looking up the origins of archaic words and cross-referencing them with other words. So, if I ever let loose and refer to anybody as "those graybeard huddle-duddles and crusty cum-twangs," you'll know it's not me, but the OED talking.


Does anyone else have favourite reference works?

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

One of my first books was a free, promotional offer of the "A" volume of the British Children's Encyclopedia The Book of Knowledge. We never got the whole set. To this day I know a disproportionate amount about Alexander and Alfred the Greats. I think there was an entry about Abraham too. I remember it being very British and very Christian.

Obviously,  I love the Oxford English Dictionary. A friend of mine has a t-shirt that says "O.E.D., yeah you know me."

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

When I was a kid our family had both The Encyclopedia Canadiana and the American Encyclopedia (I'm not sure of the names - I haven't seen either of them in 40 years) and also the Funk & Wagnallis (again, I spelt the name wrong). A friend of mine always gushed about the Encyclopedia Brittania - which his family did not own - and insisted on dragging me to the public library to read through it. I have a variety of dictionaries, not just language, but also dictionaries of psychology, bible, theology, and philosophy.


One of my first books was a free, promotional offer of the "A" volume of the British Children's Encyclopedia The Book of Knowledge.

Ha. I have the first volume of quite a few such sets. The first one would be promotional, after which you'd have to pay, so I always cancelled once I had "Volume 1."


As a Christmas present at the age of 7, I received 365 Things to Know from my maternal grandparents. It's still a sentimental favourite.

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

I still have "The Modern Marvels Encyclopedia" by John R. Crossland (no date given inside the book, but was published between annually between 1938 - 1956 as far as I can discern) published in Great Britain. Fantastic photos throughout.


The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds Eastern Region.

I think Peterson's field guides can be better, especially for telling similar birds apart.    But for on the go look through your bino's look at the book and back, I find it unbeatable.  

For the same reasons, A Golden Guide Butterflies and Moths.

And a "how to" book on Japanese arts and crafts by a woman named Midouri.


The OED is indeed an Aladdin's cave of linguistic treasures. I'll put in a word for Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, especially the older editions. An edition from the 1960's is available at Chapters at a cut-rate price under the Wordsworth imprint. Not only does the older Brewer's tell you how to faire la sainte Nitouche and give the precise date of Nicka-Nan Night, it is, as far as I know, the only reference work to give a comprehensive listing of German bishops eaten by rats.

Also, the Dictionary of Newfoundland English by Story, Kirwin and Widdowson, now available online at http://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/. A monument to a people who took the pinch of deprivation and turned it into silvery wit.

And a few years ago in the "As Is" section of Attic Books in London, I found a mid-nineteenth century edition of Lempriere's Classical Dictionary and paid five dollars for it. It had been well-used: the back had cracked and been mended with electrical tape. It's had a bit more use since then. It's a wonderful guide to the classical world (John Keats's favourite book) and is stuffed with anecdotes and conjecture about the famous, infamous and merely divine.It's probably digitized on Google Books.(poss. under the title Bibliotheca Classica) It also inspired Lempriere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk, an Eco-ish, vertigo-inducing conspiracy thriller about the East India Company.


C, Kernighan and Ritchie and Webster's Dictionary. And that's all I need. I don't need anything else, except for this paddle game, and ash tray, and my cat. And for a dollar I'll guess your weight, your height, or your sex.

George Victor

Robert B.Reich's newest, After-Shock: The Next Economy and America's Future, will join his Supercapitalism as a reference work to understand what has transpired in the last half-century and how we wound up in the political-economic pickle of today.

I've just begun what will be a short read (146 pages plus notes), but the dust-jacket prepares one somewhat: "When the nation's economy foundered in 2008, blame was directed almost universally at Wall Street. But Robert B.Reich suggests a different reason for the meltdown, and for a perilous road ahead. He argues that the real problem is structural: it lies in the increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top, and in a middle class that has had to go deeply into debt to maintain a decond standard of living."

The last time the top 1 per cent of the populatin was paid 23 per cent of the nation's income was 1928. 

"Structural."  And he proposes a "transformation" that will allow a wider sharing of prosperity.  We'll see.


autoworker autoworker's picture

Fowler's Modern English Usage (Second Edition): It was recommended to me by my medieval lit. prof. (in another life).  It sits there reminding me of his sagacious comment regarding my expository efforts at the time; "If you can't express your thoughts in writing, you probably don't understand you're subject."  I still don't understand much, but I think my writing's improved.


Any Java certification book authored by Bates and Sierra. I'm beginning to think I'm a masochist.