Tuesday 19 December 2023

The Pathos of Obsolete Reference Books

The library at the academic institute where I work part-time recently had a massive chuck-out.  Scanning the tomes strewn across the tables, I was struck by the high proportion of reference books - encyclopedias, dictionaries, guides, thesauruses,  -ographies of various types. Quite a few of them seemed to be just lists bound between hard covers - an inventory of modernist sculptures made in the UK between 1945 and 1972 along with their current institutional location; a list of works by female visual artists; examples of land art. 

Reference books used to be one of the most reliable generators of revenue within publishing. The sheer number of libraries around the world provided a guaranteed base level of sales, and there were other institutions that might have a specialist interest in particular reference works. Back then, you could  also probably rely on some individuals buying them as well -  people with professional or obsessional reasons. Then with general knowledge encyclopedias, there was the association of owning a set with self-advancement and edification. But it's the specialized reference works that grabbed my eye as I browsed the bargain-price tables in the library. 

It seemed to me that it must have been such a thriving market that publishers of these kinds of work had an incentive to keep coming up with new subjects and concepts for reference works, to the point of inventing needs and desires that didn't necessarily exist until the idea was put out there. How else to explain some of the titles that I saw -  like the Dictionary of Literary Characters. Or like these - 

There were various other kinds of reference works that weren't exactly encyclopedias or dictionaries. I was fascinated by these bound volumes of New York Times theater reviews from just one single year in the early  1970s - attracted by the illustrations printed directly onto the burlap-like cloth covers, instead of onto a dust jacket, but also intrigued by the idea that these compendia even existed.  

But no doubt for a drama school or a university theatre department, having these in book form was much preferable in term of ease of use than having to scroll through back issues of the New York Times on micro-film.  

The stuff in this stacks-clearing sale were going dirt cheap and I was tempted to rescue some of the orphaned tomes - but I was put off by the sheer weight of them (going to my place of work involve a lengthy commute by public transport) and also the knowledge that - after an initial flick-through - I would almost certainly pile them up in some corner and never look at them again, The house is already horribly cluttered  - I must have around 400 unread books. 

Still, there was something melancholy about these bereft books....  I thought of all the effort, diligence, care that must have gone into their laborious construction.  The sense of responsibility felt. The belief that what was being undertaken was of real value. And I'm sure they were valuable to users.  Remember just how hard it was to find things out before the internet. 

Of course, pathos suffuses the objects in any second-hand store - books, records, magazines, whatever. You find yourself imagining the creative excitement behind each object - the labour not just of the authors but of everyone involved in making a project reach fruition and get out into the world: editors,  designers, marketing and promotion people. DJ Shadow's comment about the record store basement as a graveyard of dreams comes to mind. But with music, there is still the possibility of a life in the culture - radio play or streams or YouTube views...  crate-diggers unearthing things and sampling etc. The analogue husk of the music is not necessarily the end of the story. Fiction and non-fiction can get reissued or rediscovered by new readers. But reference books - here, it's the very function that has been voided. The internet has usurped the role of the bound ink-and-paper repository of information. 

Before the internet took over, back in the 1990s, one of my main ways of procrastinating - putting off the work that needed to be done - was to pull a reference book off the shelves and flick through it. Almost always something to do with music. Often it was the Rolling Stone Albums Guide, which had somehow come into my possession - it's not something I would have bought. I'd skim through it and my eye would come to rest on an entry for the Allman Bros, or Bloodrock. Or I'd reread and be freshly bemused by the loathing directed at Sparks, or snort once again at the measly 3 out of 5 stars afforded My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything.

 Chuck Eddy's "guide" to greatest heavy metal album was another thing I'd dip into repeatedly. 

Thinking back to much earlier in my life, certain reference works were revelatory. Take The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction - a thick, full-color book teeming with illustrations and reproduced covers of paperbacks and s.f. magazines, but also crammed with well-written, informative essays on various sub-genres and scenario typologies, and mini-thinkpieces by some of the great writers in the field (there's a terrific one by J.G. Ballard on the cataclysm novel).  

The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction was a present I asked for for my 14th birthday, or maybe it was Christmas 1977 - I'm not sure.  Another present request was a pictorial dictionary - the one below. See, I fancied being able to recognise and name things like, say, all the different parts of a shoe, and to know all the different kinds of shoe as well... basically have at my command the names of appliances and tools and vehicles and garments and plants and creatures and ... every kind of object and substance in the world. 

However although I never got rid of it - and recently was reunited with the book after years of it languishing in storage -  I have never once found myself using The Oxford-Duden Pictorial English Dictionary.  So I still couldn't identify the different bits of a shoe or name many types of footwear.  I guess there's still time... 


  1. Thank you for this post Simon - great stuff.

    I think there is probably a distinction to be made between the 'fun' kind of reference books, which could still probably find a happy home on many people's book shelves (eg, I would literally kill for a copy of 'The Visual Encyclopedia of SF') and the crushing sadness inspired by the millions of entirely obsolete, purposeless 'boring' ones (second only to out-of-date computing/programming manuals as far as paper tombstones go).

    Also: looking at your scans of that Pictorial Dictionary immediately set off a light bulb in my brain -- specifically because I've developed a bit of a thing recently about moments in (primarily late 20th C.) fiction in which an author will specify some highly particular item of clothing, or furniture, or architecture, leaving me thinking, "Am I supposed to know what that looks like?"

    Now, instead of getting annoyed at my own ignorance and trying to do a google image search, I will simply imagine the author reaching for their trusty 'Pictorial Dictionary' and having fun trying to find an interesting shoe for their new villain to wear, or whatever...

  2. Cheers, Ben!

    No need to kill anybody - the Visual Encyclopedia of SF can be found quite cheap I think. There's one for 8 bucks, free shipping at Abe Books in fact.

    I am amazed by how authors who know all the names for things. I recently read Unfinished Business, the novel by Michael Bracewell - it's excellent. And it's full of ultra-precise descriptions of the characters' clothing (and other things to do with decor or furnishings).

    Whereas I for instance... when people refer to Oxfords, no mental picture enters my mind. Even though, looking them up on the internet just now, I see that I have in the past owned them.

    I remain clothing and footwear illiterate. A non-dandy. Mules, pumps, it's all Greek to me.