Posts Tagged ‘reference books’

A tour of my library – part four

August 12, 2019

The travel writing section is the largest new one in my library, growing over the last fifteen or twenty years as my interest in travel writing has developed. It’s not systematic: there are areas I have deliberately explored and others I ignore completely. Deserts and the ancient Silk Roads both fascinate me. So, there is much on the Near East, the Middle East and Central Asia, lots on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but little on Africa unless it’s the Sahara, and very little on the United States. The colder parts of the world don’t figure much, either. And, as I have explained in other, more detailed posts on travel writing, I have by and large tended to avoid recent writing because travel has become tourism, too easy relatively speaking: I like to read about exploration and travel where rather more effort and difficulty is involved. For this reason, I have collected a fair number of accounts of travel from several centuries ago, and also accounts by non-Westerners, for their different perspective on the world. I think my most interesting discovery was probably Ibn Battutah, a traveller from the Arab world who travelled in the early fourteenth century and far more widely than did Marco Polo

I’m gradually disposing of my reference section, which, to put it bluntly, has pretty much been made redundant by the internet: there will be an article, invariably reliable, well-referenced and usually with numerous links, in Wikipedia. My local library now offers me the OED online for nothing. I have one or two literature reference books, and quite a few atlases, and they will now suffice. Maps on the internet do not cut the mustard for me. I have the large Times Comprehensive Atlas which I love, and various historical atlases and collections of old maps. I did, however, recently splash out on Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies translated into English. He was a seventh century encyclopaedist who put together and wrote down everything that was known in his time, and is now rightly the patron saint of the internet. It is fascinating to contemplate how others viewed the world and interpreted it in the past, and to realise that at some future date, our world-view may seem just as quaint to our successors.

Some readers of this blog will also know of my love of JS Bach’s music, and there is a small section of the library consisting of biographies, guides to his world and the places he lived and worked, and some reference books which I use when listening to his church cantatas. The most useful of these was the first book I ever acquired from Amazon in the days before it became the behemoth I now strive to avoid Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts. It contains texts of all the cantatas, in German, word-for-word translated and then a proper English version, set out in the manner of a classics ‘crib’ from many years ago. It also has all the relevant biblical readings to go with the texts, so that everything I need as I listen is on a single page.

There’s a sizeable religion and theology section, with bibles and other church service books, books on the history of religion, Christianity and Islam, which I have developed an interest in over the years; this joins up with my fascination with travel in those parts of the world. There’s also a reasonable number of books on Quakerism. The oddest book in the collection is probably a fine copy of the Liber Usualis which I acquired secondhand for a song when I was a student in Liverpool, and recently discovered was worth quite a lot. It’s basically a monastic service book with music, for the masses of every day of the church year; the music is four-stave plainchant, and the rubrics are all in church Latin too.

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Print or screen?

June 11, 2015

One of the things about the world of books that has changed faster than anything, I think, is the rapid obsolescence of reference books of almost all kinds. I have no idea why every year we have a new phone directory and yellow pages delivered: they are never opened, and I don’t understand why we haven’t introduced the German system, whereby you take an old one to exchange for a new one if you want it, ensuring no unnecessary waste, and certain recycling. But that was the first example that sprang to mind…

With access to the internet, looking for information has been transformed over the last decade. I use the OED online, free, via my local library, when I need a definition. Similarly, I use word reference, or my.dict for translations for French, German or Spanish words. Paper dictionaries get very little use, since, while I’m reading my tablet is next to me, far lighter than the alternative. I turn to a ‘real’ dictionary when I’m wrestling with a crossword and need to search for words, or if the online French dictionary lacks the words I need.

Encyclopaedias that I used to consult regularly now gather dust or have gone to charity shops. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, which used to be the gold standard, has, for me, paled into insignificance alongside wikipedia, which scores by virtue not only of its incredible scope, but also for its numerous further references and links.

I like to have my Bach reference books alongside me as I listen to the cantatas, because they are easier to use and cross-reference on paper than on a tablet, even though there are now some stunningly comprehensive websites out there.

But I suppose my major exception to the world of internet reference is with maps and atlases: I still rely on my vast and unwieldy Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, and will probably replace it with another print copy when it is outdated, and I also have some map sheets of particular areas: the small area visible on a laptop or tablet screen just doesn’t lend itself to the kind of things I need from a map, although sometimes Google Earth is a useful complement.

Habits are clearly changing very rapidly; I’ve heard report that school students say that they don’t need to learn facts and information because they can look them up instantly; I like that I can have access to the latest information rather than relying on a possibly out-of-date book. I do think it’s important to discriminate, though – some texts obviously go out of date much more rapidly than others, and I also find that there are times when paper is much more user-friendly than screen text, for instance when I’m flipping back from page to page in a book, with my thumb in one place, or quickly scanning an index or table of contents and grazing a section.

I think all this is wonderful; my bookshelves are rather lighter than they might otherwise be (and I can justify some of the gadgets I’ve acquired). And, because so much information is at my fingertips, I can wander much more widely through the world of knowledge than I ever could before, and I have come across wonders that I might otherwise never have known the existence of.

The death of reference books

September 23, 2014

It’s autumn, and so in our house, the annual clearout begins. This includes pruning the library, and I’m getting rid of a lot of old reference books. This had me thinking about how the internet has changed the way I look things up.

I still use dictionaries, (well, I would, being an ex-English teacher and crossword fan: it’s far easier with a book in your lap) so the faithful Chambers is on the shelves – our third copy, I think – though I often find myself using the OED online, as I have free access via our local library log-in. But paper encyclopaedias and gazetteers are now useless, I find, because the information available on the web is much more up-to-date, and easily accessible. Paper atlases and maps, however, I still find immensely useful when reading all the travel writing I consume: the detail, the clarity and the ability to relate one area to another is far easier than on something like Google Maps; the only time when online maps come into their own, I find, is when very small detail is needed.

General encyclopaedias pale into insignificance next to wikipedia. And who consults the Encyclopedia Britannica any more? Apparently, it’s hard to give away old printed sets, and it’s no longer the default source for detailed knowledge on the web either. Thanks to an excellent librarian at the school where I used to work, we were all trained in how to set up useful searches, and how to evaluate web sources for reliability and truthfulness, so why wouldn’t I start my quest for further knowledge on the web?

When it comes to more specific or specialised information, then I still think paper reference books have a place. I have a couple of sets of encyclopaedias of world literature which are still getting ever more well-worn, and I have not switched to using exclusively online information when travelling and touring; I would still much rather have a detailed guidebook and supplement this with latest online information as and when I need it. I need a paper map to find my way around unfamiliar towns and cities.

It is astonishing, though, how in a decade or so, our access to and use of information, has been revolutionised. I resent the waste of paper when a new – admittedly thinner – phone directory or yellow pages drops through the letterbox, as I can’t remember when I last used either. Instant, quality information on anything is at my fingertips, and, what I probably find most amazing of all, information I never knew I could have is there, courtesy of being able to surf and browse. People sometimes complain that the web is being taken over by huge corporations who only want to mine data, spy on us and sell us crap: this is undoubtedly true, and yet there is also such a tremendous resource of useful material, offered free, out there, and I’m immensely grateful to organisations like Project Gutenberg and Librivox, for example, who have revolutionised some aspects of my life…

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