I won’t lie: this book isn’t for everyone. Even if you live on a steady diet of nonfiction it may take you a while to digest. If you’re a completist who needs to know absolutely everything about a subject before moving on to the next, look away. But if you’re fascinated by the power and variety of reference books – bibles of knowledge, the preserving amber of historical wisdom – this is the book for you.

Each chapter is a brief but detailed overview of a pair of reference books from roughly the same period in history, approaching a single discipline from two different angles. Pairing the Dictionnaire de l’Académie françoise (1694) and Samuel Johnson’s famously bold A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) makes for a lovely contrast between the guarded doors of French prescriptivism and the more laissez-faire English approach.

Interesting asides are nestled into charming half-chapters along the way. Chapter 10 1/2, for example, deals with ghost words and mountweazels, those made-up words that have accidentally – or mischievously – ended up in dictionaries. And there is one endearingly intimate description of the author’s own dictionary collection, arranged in the order each book is likely to be needed.

You Could Look It Up (Jack Lynch, Bloomsbury, 2016) doesn’t aim to cover every reference book ever written. It couldn’t possibly. But it does start with the Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi (inscribed in cuneiform on a pillar of diorite around 1754 BCE) and end with an epilogue on Wikipedia, so you can hardly argue that it isn’t comprehensive. And if you do want to know more about any of the books it mentions, you’ll have all the information you need to look it up: its title and publication date but also its size, weight and area. (I am curious, but I have never wondered about how much area a book occupies.)

There is some fun to be had here, it just depends on your version of fun.

By Olivia McDowell


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