Book review: You Could Look It Up is a requiem for reference

As internet resources increasingly consign encyclopedias, maps and traditional reference works to obscurity, we lament the loss of the beauty and wonder of looking up their words.

Greek physicians Claudius Galen, left, and Hippocrates, right, with Persian physician Ibn Sina, often known as Avicenna, centre, printed from a 15th century medieval woodcut. Ibn Sina's 11th century medical encyclopaedia, The Canon of Medicine (Kitab Al Qanun fi Al Tibb), combining Greek and Islamic thought, is one of those discussed by author Jack Lynch. Bernd-Jurgen Fischer / ullstein bild via Getty Images.
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I sometimes feel I have been in love with reference books for my entire life. As a child of two or three, I could often be found propped against the corner of the sofa with a reference book for company. I couldn’t have been reading Dad’s dictionary, of course, or absorbing the statistics in one of his many prized guides to the vicissitudes of the latest football season, but volumes such as these, I am told, were always sure to occupy me. Something about the weight, perhaps. Or the sound and feel of the pages. Or the pleasure of emulating something I must have seen my dad do daily.

By the time I was old enough to read properly I had already amassed a fairly impressive collection: dictionaries, encyclopaedias, nature handbooks, thesauruses. I was magnetised, as many children were, by The Guinness Book of Records. I would even make reference books (Matthew's Book of Dogs, I discover, might well be extant).

From here, my passion grew until it bordered on the obsessional. As a teen I would buy any work of reference I could find (Thomas H Clancy's English Catholic Books, 1641-1700: A Bibliography has proved extremely useful over the years). In my first week as a doctoral student I blew a reckless portion of my funding on the second, 20-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I had to transport it to my rooms in a taxi. It is still among my most treasured possessions.

Any reader with this much enthusiasm for the reference book is bound, of course, to want to read books about reference books (even books about books about reference books – a neglected genre), and over the years I have worked my way through many such volumes (see, for example, AJ Jacobs's The Know-It-All, in which he chronicles the experience of reading the entirety of The Encyclopaedia Britannica (44 million words) over the course of a year; or Ammon Shea's Reading the Oxford English Dictionary: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages). But I have never read – have never encountered – a complete history (what is it with reference-nuts and completion?) of the reference book.

And after finishing Jack Lynch's warm, large and enlarging new book, You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia, I still haven't. This is not a criticism: a complete history of the reference book is barely conceivable, let alone writable. And anyway, Lynch does not, if we ignore the intimation of comprehensiveness implied by his title, aim to be exhaustive. What he does aim to do is offer a partial history of "50 great reference books, from the third millennium BCE to the present, all of them ambitious attempts to collect a vast amount of knowledge and to present it to the world in a usable form".

Why? Partly out of love: Lynch describes his work as “a love letter to the great dictionaries, encyclopaedias and atlases”; the world they structure and create, he says, “is positively exuberant, passionate, bursting with knowledge”.

But he has also chosen to attend to them because of their historical and cultural importance: “When we turn an ancient dictionary’s pages,” he writes, “we read something never meant for our eyes, and we get to overhear the dead talking among themselves ... Reference books shape the world.”

In addressing this curious efficacy, Lynch wants to show – “with only a small bit of exaggeration” – how “the reference book is responsible for the spread of empires, the scientific revolution, the French Revolution, and the invention of the computer”.

This is an argument that would require rather more than “a small bit of exaggeration”. But Lynch knows this, and when he gets around to making a case for the influence of a particular book, he usually does so with a fair degree of subtlety.

Even when he is writing about the 28-volume Encyclopedie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, a work that historians commonly regard as fundamental to the radical intellectual challenges that would contribute to the French Revolution, he refuses to go so far as to say that it was the sole cause of the events that took place in 1789.

Which is quite right. But it is also quite dull: an observation familiar to anyone who is even casually acquainted with the history of the French Revolution. This lack of novelty is often apparent in the conclusions Lynch draws about the importance of his chosen books: the observation that “encyclopaedias can be the site of important cross-cultural dialogue”, for example, is not a resounding way to close a peroration.

But this is not a book to be visited for the strength and the freshness of its argument. In common with the works it discusses, it gives up its riches unexpectedly. To read it is to feel a sense of repeated serendipity and wonder: you are forever stumbling across pieces of information you didn't know you wanted to know, as exemplified by the near-useless definitions that pepper John Kersey's A New English Dictionary of 1702 ("Ake, as, my head akes"), or by the fact that the word algorithm derives from the name of a ninth-century Islamic polymath, Muhammad ibn Musa Al Khwarizmi, whose The Concise Book on Calculation by Restoration and Compensation contains the source of the word algebra (al jabr – "compensation").

The book is also full of delightful anecdotes (we learn that the Roman naturalist Pliny died when, following an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, he sailed towards the volcano for a better look and was asphyxiated by falling ash), and surprising instances of beautiful and moving prose.

This is from an entry in the Erya (third century BC) – the oldest surviving dictionary of the Chinese language – entitled "Explaining Heaven": "Round-hollow and very blue, this is Heaven. In springtime, Heaven is blue; in summertime, bright; in autumn, clear; in wintertime, Heaven is wide up. These are the four seasons."

There are moments of less obvious beauty (I urge you to look up the "definition" of blood in the greatest early dictionary of India, the fourth-century Amarakosha, but these have their value and they contribute to the cumulative sense of gratitude and sadness that Lynch generates over the course of the book.

Gratitude for the immense labour and physical torment to which our ancestors from all over the globe were prepared to subject themselves in order to preserve, pattern, and map the world and its creations. Sadness, because the story of the reference shelf is also a story of loss: electronic reference works are displacing print; electronic searches are displacing the pleasures of browsing; the advent of GPS is a threat to the beauty of printed maps. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has already announced the end of its print edition. The OED might follow suit.

Lynch is sensitive to the possibilities and the promise of new forms of categorising the world. Yet he is also sorry that the great bound reference books might soon be lost. Short of buying them and loving them and living with them yourself, You Could Look It Up is the most powerful way of appreciating why you should be sorry too.

Matthew Adams lives in London and writes for the TLS, The Spectator and the Literary Review.