A Fortnightly Review of
You Could Look It Up
by Jack Lynch
By ROBERT McHENRY.
MAN, BY NATURE, desires to know, or so we have been told. But man, in his fallen state, must go to a job and share in the housework and clean the gutters and attend futile soccer games and so cannot always take the time to conduct independent study. In this dilemma he resorts to reference books, where the accumulated knowledge and experience of mankind has been classified, summarized, fact-checked (let us hope), and published in easily affordable and usable form.
Jack Lynch isn’t sure when the reference book — or reference wall painting, or reference clay tablet — originated, but he begins his survey of the genre in the 2nd millennium BCE, with the stele engraved with the set of laws attributed to Hammurabi. From there he meanders his way down to the electronic present in 25 short chapters, each comparing and contrasting, Plutarch-like, a pair of innovative and historically significant works. Along the way he mentions so many others, in brief or only in passing, that the reader may begin to wonder what else mankind has managed to accomplish these many years. Of making many reference books there is no end, the preacher did not exactly say, but, reading this book, it seems true nonetheless.
The chapter pairings are sometimes the obvious and unavoidable ones — Hammurabi and Justinian, for example, or Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the Encyclopædia Britannica — but sometimes Lynch avoids the obvious for the more interesting, as in not pairing Dr. Johnson’s dictionary with Noah Webster’s but those with the French Academy’s Dictionnaire and that of the Brothers Grimm, respectively. Other pairings may be odd, as Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians with Emily Post’s Etiquette; or wholly and delightfully unexpected, as a seventeeth-century sex manual, craftily credited to Aristotle, with an 18th-century guide to London’s ladies of pleasure.
Both Google and Wikipedia come in for discussion, but for some reason Lynch has chosen not to give them a chapter. Instead they form the matter of an epilogue titled “The World’s Information: The Encyclopedic Dream.” On both of these tools he is even-handed and provisional in judgment.
Following each chapter is a short digression on some more general matter relating to the making and using of reference books, such as the use of alphabetical order, plagiarism, errors and omissions, and the impossibility of completing a reference work on time. (Among the errors we learn, finally, the true story of the illusive “dord.”) Chapter 22 1/2 (that is how these asides are numbered) offers a selected list of “unlikely reference books.” These include a Dictionary of Dainty Breakfasts, an encyclopedia of show-business homicides, an encyclopedia of stupidity, and what Lynch slyly refers to as “the best protozoogenetical dictionary in the Moldovan language.”
IT IS CLEAR that Lynch loves his subject and harbors a quite admirable fondness for those peculiar souls who work so hard at producing works that, however wildly various their subjects and forms, all have as their goal the provision of utility to their users. If he is uncertain about anything it is what, exactly, composes that utility. Like most of us, he tends to use the words “information” and “knowledge” interchangeably, as though they were the closest of synonyms. But there is a strong argument that they are not, or at least should not be so used.
I attempt the New York Times crossword puzzle each morning. Increasingly over the years I have noticed that I often can’t answer questions about current popular culture, simply because increasingly I don’t pay much attention to such things. Yet I do not consider myself less knowledgeable about the world than I used to be; on the contrary. An extreme example of what I am suggesting was my one-time boss Mortimer Adler, long the chairman of the advisory board of distinguished scholars for the Encyclopædia Britannica. He once startled an audience by blithely announcing that not only did he not consider himself well informed, he had no interest in being so. His interest lay rather in being well educated.
(There is a cartoon by James Thurber that shows a man, morose and ill at ease, sitting apart at a cocktail party where others are chatting amiably. A woman explains to another, “He doesn’t know anything but facts.”)
You Could Look it Up doesn’t cover almanacs, but those who remember the “Information Please” series or others like it will readily distinguish between what it offered — chiefly lists of things — from what an encyclopedia strives to supply. Not only is there a distinction to be made, admittedly with difficulty at the margins, between information and knowledge, there are the questions of whether one can “know” an erroneous fact, or whether theological statements can be called knowledge, as Lynch does in one place. But he is not doing epistemology and so we must forgive him a certain looseness. It is perhaps telling, however, that in his prologue to the book Lynch uses the words “information” and “knowledge” an equal number of times, but when, in the epilogue, he turns to Google and Wikipedia, he writes “information” twelve times and “knowledge” not once.
Perhaps modern technology could more usefully clone Benjamin Jowett, theologian, scholar of Greek, and long-time master of Balliol College, Oxford, who was renowned for his learning. One or perhaps several of his students composed a comic quatrain that concluded:
I am the Master of this College,
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.
I was pleasantly surprised by how few typographic and other minor errors I noticed, given the trend of the last couple of decades for publishers to outsource or skip proofreading and even substantive editing altogether. I suspect that calling the thirteenth-century Catalan theologian Ramon Llul by the name Lull is a consequence of autocorrect somewhere along the production line. No such latitude, however, for putting Alexandria in Upper rather than Lower Egypt.
Oddly, You Could Look it Up is somewhat deficient in reference tools. The table of contents fails to note the works considered in each chapter. Chapter titles like “Grecian Glory, Roman Grandeur: Victorian Eyes on the Ancient World” or “The Good Life: The Arts and High Society” don’t convey much, ahem, information. And the index is skimpy to the point of cheeseparing (and that’s what Lynch gets for ignoring thesauruses). Notwithstanding, it is a very good book, one that I am happy to give a prominent place to on the bookshelf and to which I no doubt will refer often.
Robert McHenry is the former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He is the author of How to Know (Booklocker, 2004). His work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Skeptical Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, and the American. He is the “Q.V.” columnist at The Fortnightly Review, where he provides notes and comment on reference works.