And More Superlatives

I had a little discussion last week with someone who was giving me an old encyclopedia her father had told her was worth keeping. She’s expecting a flood in the basement, with all this thawing, and she wants to make room to keep things above the waters.

“I know these old encyclopedias are a drug on the market,’ she said. “But I hate to just throw it away.”

“Oh, someone will buy it,” I said. “It’s the eleventh edition of the Britannica.”

She was thrown agog by this declaration about an encyclopedia that was a hundred years old. If the rest of you can tear yourselves away from Wikipedia for a moment, we will now chat about some of the classics of reference in the Western world.

Best Encyclopedia in the English language: The eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the title-holder (although some people hold out for the 9th) Sometimes called the Scholar’s Edition, this was one of the few times the folks at Britannica just went through and rewrote the whole set, making an heroic effort to get the most important scholars in the field to write the articles. I hate to keep mentioning this, but if anyone ever wants to give me one of the sets which came with a special bookcase designed by frank Lloyd Wright for it, I’l be glad to get that picked up for you

Best Dictionary in the English Language: The Oxford English Dictionary, in all those volumes. You can, of course, get one of the magnifying glass editions. This is the dictionary that is so important that five (at my latest count) books have been written about how it was written. The really fun bit is where they try to trace the first recorded use of this word for that meaning in English. Very useful for writing historical romance.

Best One-volume Dictionary in the English Language: I suppose the fire and smoke have not yet dissipated, but people still prefer the Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, known colloquially as Webster’s II. There was an explosion when the editors of the third edition decided to work along descriptive, rather than prescriptive, lines; that is, they stopped telling you “ain’t” was not a grammatically correct word, and simply listed it as a word. I won’t tell you where I stand on the question, but the fact remains that I can sell a Webster’s II for five times what a Webster’s III fetches.

Best Book on How to Write: Dear old Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, beating out both the MLA Style Manual AND Kate Turabian’s immortal work, as well as even our own University of Chicago Manual of Style. The others may contain more information on bibliographic entry, but Strunk and White are the champions on grammar and style. I’ve never been in the Strunk and White camp, myself. Every time I open the little thing, I find them fulminating against something I just finished doing.

Best Thesaurus in the English Language: I am sorry to say that my clientele are here ranged against me about 100 to 1. I LIKE dear old Roget’s bizarre organization; I find it helpful. Everyone else prefers the redesigned version with the words in alphabetical order. It’s rough, being the only person in step.

That’s enough to go on. I may add that my customers will always buy up Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (maybe the best one-volume dictionary weighing less than half a ton), and although there are hundreds of quotation books in the world, they still want Bartlett’s, due to size and name recognition.

You may be able to think of others. I’m going to go back to reading Webster I (that was the version with all the obsolete and really silly words in tiny, tiny print along the bottom.) I think you really can’t enjoy a sequel until you’ve read the first book in the series.

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