Tomes for the Holidays

Reference books

Tomes for the Holidays

The approaching millennium has made for busy bees in the book industry, with publishers carefully ensuring that their catalog of reference books is Y2K-ready in addition to churning out the requisite scholarly surveys of and misty-eyed farewells to the 20th century. Good news for those who enjoy giving edifying books at the holidays, this plethora of millennial offerings should include something for anyone with a penchant for looking things up.

Fans of reference books tend to be avid readers, and what better gift for a confirmed lover of words than an up-to-the-cyber-minute dictionary? The fourth edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary lays claim to “defining the English language for the 21st century,” and while it may be too soon to test the validity of this statement, it is the official dictionary of the Associated Press ($23.95). Perhaps feeling that Webster’s had an unfair monopoly on the dictionary business, Microsoft has gotten into the act with its Encarta World English Dictionary ($50), described by Newsweek as “the first new dictionary born in the information age.” Created using computer, Internet, and database technology, and combining the work of 250 lexicographers in 10 countries with, as the publisher subtly puts it, “the power of Microsoft Encarta,” this new breed of dictionary boasts over 400,000 entries and more than 20,000 new words and definitions, for a mind-numbing three million words of text. While Newsweek may sing its praises, the Times Literary Supplement sniffs that “Encarta is a commercial venture dressed up to look like a cultural mission.” The Times might be comforted to know that the full 20-volume set of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which retails for a whopping $3,000, is currently ranked no. 3 on’s Reference Top Ten list, where it sells for a heavily discounted $950.

Curious about the word “catawampus”? Looking to liven up your stale office patter with some offbeat lingo? While not hot off the press in 1999, the two-volume Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang will simultaneously fascinate, amuse, and overwhelm a reader with its meticulous research into the slang that peppers our everyday speech. Guaranteed to be adored by word freaks of all persuasions, volume 1 covers letters A through G, while volume 2 encompasses H through O ($65 each). Don’t start reading them before you wrap, or you’ll be tempted to park these volumes on your own bookshelf.

Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, the folks at the Princeton Language Institute have improved upon the occasionally fusty-sounding alternatives offered in your average thesaurus by including hundreds of newly minted words and common slang terms in their Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus. Containing 500,000 synonyms that yield over 1,000,000 word choices, this paperback will jump-start your vocabulary at a bargain-basement price (Dell, $12.95).

For those with daily New York Times subscriptions who worry more about the “how” of the English language than the “why,” Random House has just issued the official style manual of America’s unofficial paper of record. Fully updated for the first time in 23 years, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: The Official Style Guide Used by the Writers and Editors of the New York Times ($35) may not bless others with the whip-smart prose of Times film critic Janet Maslin, but it should help conscientious writers of all ability levels avoid embarrassing grammatical gaffes. Another recent usage manual of note is former New York Times Book Review editor Patricia O’Conner’s Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing ( Harcourt Brace, $18.95). Praised for its sense of humor and overall accessibility, Words Fail Me is an ideal reference tool for writers who blanch at the mere mention of The Chicago Manual of Style.

A brand-new addition to the world of quotation books, The Quotable Book Lover (Lyons Press, $20) collects 500 pithy insights into books and writing by famous authors and bibliophiles, ranging from Aeschylus to Malcolm X to Yeats. A great gift for the budding novelist in search of an instant epigraph, many of these quotes seem handpicked to flatter the egos of struggling wordsmiths. Example: “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people”—Thomas Mann. And if the aspiring author in your life has come down with a bad case of writer’s block, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books, $12.95) is chicken soup for the pen.

Prefer pictures to words? The dawn of a new century has inspired the world’s map publishers to issue more atlases than you can shake a pointer at. Leading the pack in bells and whistles is the DK Millennium World Atlas: A Portrait of the Earth in the Year 2000 (DK Publishing, $125), which features, in addition to the standard political maps, a slew of enhanced satellite photos snapped from outer space and an enclosed CD-ROM full of other gee-whiz images. Less flashy, but perhaps more satisfying for the serious cartography buff, are the eminently trustworthy National Geographic Atlas of the World ($125 for the new seventh edition) and the Rand McNally Millennium World Atlas ($59.95 on sale at the downtown Seattle Rand McNally store), the latter of which includes a special timeline of milestone events over the last 1,000 years. If you’re in the mood to splurge, by all means go for the tenth edition of The Times Atlas of the World (Times Books, $250) the so-called “Rolls-Royce” of atlases that’s a breathtaking example of map making at its finest.

While Bob Dylan cautioned “don’t look back” as early as the 1960s, such sentiments haven’t stopped the editors at Life from putting out the 100-year retrospective aptly entitled Life: Our Century in Pictures (Bullfinch Press, $60). Filled with over 770 images, it’s certainly a worthwhile coffee-table candidate for photojournalism connoisseurs or anyone seeking a visual memento of the century we’re on the verge of bidding farewell.

Carolyn Wennblom is a freelance writer in Seattle.

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