The rise of the Internet has transformed the way in which I use the reference books that I keep within arm’s reach of my desk. I own, for instance, the two-volume New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, but I can’t remember the last time I opened it. When I want to look up a word, I use an online dictionary. By the same token, my Bible and Complete Works of Shakespeare have long since been relegated to the living-room bookshelves, not because they’re any less valuable under the aspect of postmodernity but because the texts of these oft-consulted books have been made available in searchable online versions that make it possible for me to hunt down half-remembered passages with the greatest of ease.
I still keep Fowler’s Modern English Usage on my desk, though mostly for sentimental reasons, and a half-dozen more books are shelved where I can get at them without rising from my chair. They are Dostoevsky’s Demons, a Modern Library edition of Montaigne’s essays and four ancient hardbound Viking Portables: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and Johnson and Boswell. (Once you reach middle age, Boswell’s Life of Johnson is better read in an abridged version.) Again, though, these books are more talismans than tools, and I keep them nearby as a gesture, much as Whittaker Chambers kept copies of Demons, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Franz Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes in the top drawer of his desk at Time. My real “reference library” is my MacBook, with which I can consult anything from the 24,000 public-domain texts that Project Gutenberg has made available in electronic “editions” to a searchable version of the complete run of Time, starting in 1923 and extending forward to this week’s issue.
The only two reference books on my desk that I still consult with fair regularity are David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film and H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, both of which are more idiosyncratic than their titles suggest. Thomson’s book is a fat collection of essayettes about major figures in film, all written with a strongly personal slant from which a true lexicographer would gallop at full speed. Here, for instance, is Thomson on Humphrey Bogart:
He made few wholly satisfactory films-High Sierra, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, In a Lonely Place-and failed in a variety of parts outside the narrow range he saw fit for himself. But within that range he had the impact of Garbo or James Dean. Like them, he was a great Romantic. It is harder to see him as such because of the efforts he made to appear anti-Romantic. The implications of his work-as a comment on self-dramatization-are rather more daunting and disturbing than he ever realized.
Mencken’s New Dictionary is a similarly deft piece of literary prestidigitation, a 1,347-page commonplace book disguised as a sober-looking dictionary of quotations, though you don’t have to peruse it much more than casually to realize that the quotations Mencken painstakingly assembled and organized by topic were intended to reflect his own dark skepticism about mankind. One reviewer, Morton Dauwen Zabel, saw at once what Mencken had been up to when the book was published in 1942: “The impression soon becomes inescapable that what Mencken has produced as a ‘Dictionary of Quotations’ is really a transcendend ‘Prejudices: Seventh Series,’ a ‘Notes on Humanity,’ or more expressly ‘Mencken’s Philosophical Dictionary, Written by Others.’”
Now that it’s possible to search the archives of Time on line, I looked up that magazine’s original review of the New Dictionary the other day, and was not disappointed:
The reader may thus trace from start to semi-finish a concentrated history of thumbnail memoranda on such subjects as God, boredom, marriage, work, Government, lawyers, shoals of others. He may learn the Golden Rule not only from the New Testament but from Confucius, Isocrates, Tobit, the Mahabharata, Hillel Ha-Babli; such shy self-revelations as the U.S. proverb: “Do others or they will do you,” or Bernard Shaw’s “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” The reader can observe that, whereas there is much respectful talk about law itself, human experience with lawyers has been bilious. He can get every sort of opinion of work, from Hippocrates’ sound advice “Never work when hungry” to the African proverb: “Work only tires a woman, but it ruins a man.”
Would that Mencken’s New Dictionary were still in print, but used copies are easy to find and worth acquiring. Rarely does a week go by that I don’t have occasion to consult it, always with profit and often with amusement.