Classic, Old Reference Works Revived and New Ones Discovered

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.


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There is no source of reference remotely as authoritative as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. There is no brand as venerable and as veteran as this mammoth labour of knowledge and ideas established in 1768. It numbered the likes of Einstein and Freud among its authors. Dozens of classic articles written by such luminaries are available on the Britannica's Web Site and included in its CD-ROM and DVD editions.

This is the tip of an iceberg of revival of old reference works.

The full text of the venerable 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is now available online and is in the public domain. Regrettably, there is no CD-ROM or DVD to be had of this opus magnum written by the best minds at the turn of the 20th century. Nor can one download the Encyclopedia as separate compressed files. Additionally, the transcription is far from perfect with many an article either truncated or mysteriously divided. Still, it is a grand and welcome undertaking.

Another sorely needed contribution is the Jewish Encyclopedia online. The only other project of this scope, the Encyclopedia Judaica on CD-ROM will be withdrawn from the market by January 2006 and is anyhow incompatible with any operating system later than Windows ME.

Exactly like the Britannica, the Jewish Encyclopedia was compiled at the turn of the previous century and, therefore, lacks any coverage of the important events that took place in the life of the Jewish people - from the Holocaust to the State of Israel. But, with 4000 years of history to go on, the Jewish Encyclopedia is still a vast, indispensable, and deeply researched resource. It is also better adapted to the technological constraints of the Web. Still, it, too, offers no way of acquiring the whole work: no CD-ROM or DVD, no downloadable compressed files.

By far the best among the three is the Catholic Encyclopedia. The 1904 edition of this magnificent work of reference is fully and freely available online. The commercial CD-ROM includes all 11,600 articles (which I found to be surprisingly objective and free of religious bias). But both the Web site and the CD contain reams of additional material: from the writings of the Church Fathers to numerous foundational texts in the history of Catholicism.

The Web site itself is rich, easy to navigate, expertly done - but not cluttered or cutesy. The CD is a faithful rendition of the Encyclopedia's Web presence - yet not a mere mirror. It takes advantage of search and other CD-only features and is user-friendly,  not resource-hogging, easy to install and to run even on the Windows 98 SE 1996 laptop I used as a worst-scenario test bench.

Why are people so interested in outdated and outmoded reference, typically rendered obsolete by subsequent research?

Nostalgia is part of the answer. These works of reference are refreshingly direct, politically incorrect, opinionated, and innocently naive. They are reminiscent of another, more promising, age. Curiosity is another reason. What did our forefathers know or thought they knew about heredity, nationalism, the atom, the Jews, and germs? It is startling to discover both how far we have progressed and how much we have forgotten.

Then there is the trivia. Mountains of little-known facts about long-forgotten people, countries, politics, arts, and crafts. It is the closest we can get to time-travel and, so it seems, equally exciting. By exploring our roots, we get to know ourselves and in this narcissistic age and civilization - who can resist such a proposition?


Pears Cyclopedia

The 2012-2013 edition of Pears Cyclopaedia is the first major revision in some time. It adds considerable heft to veteran chapters as well as re-introduces categories of knowledge from previous editions.

The “Chronicle of Events” is brought up to May 2012. The special topic in history this year is “Alamein and Montgomery.” The “Prominent People” section has been updated to include recent entries such as Obama and Mitt Romney. Steve Jobs, we are informed, passed away in 2011. The “Background to World Affairs” – a compilation of monographs about the history and societies of the regions of the globe - is indispensable: it is as updated as an online blog and as thorough as an encyclopedia. In conjunction with “The Historical World” it provides a comprehensive resource, with a separate chapter covering historic Britain and a special topic encompassing 50 years of archaeological discoveries.

"Britain Today" has been expanded to include a Who’s Who in British Politics and a glossary as well as treatment of the Royal Jubilee and the seemingly inexorable move towards Scottish independence. The “General Compendium” is a cornucopia of tables and data and delectable lists, some useful, some quaint (British monarchy, Prime Ministers since 1721, rules of the Roman world, US Presidents, Nobel Prize winners, new words, major literary prizes, Roman numerals, the Chinese calendar, foreign phrases, national currencies, the Greek alphabet, glossary of drinks, common legal terms, military anniversaries, famous ships, and current tax rates.)

The venerable and popular section “Myths and Legends” now covers not only Greece and Rome, but also Norse mythology. Pears provides a constantly-updated survey of “Ideas and Beliefs” throughout the centuries. The entry about the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, notes its decline in the past two decades and the fact that are now (2012) more Muslims in the world than Catholics. Regrettably, the Gazetteer of the British Isles is all that remains from the once excellent Atlas. It is followed by a much enlarged “General Information” gateway: a mini cyclopaedia with hundreds of listings pertaining to all fields of human knowledge, from astronomy and architecture to zoology.

To augment these magnificent offerings, Pears Cyclopaedia provides a “Literary Companion” (outline of English literature arranged as a chronological survey, replete with biographical and bibliographic entries); an “Introduction to Art and Architecture” (key terms, movements, and styles); “The World of Music” (outline historical narrative, glossary of musical terms, and index to composers); “The Cinema” (its history and famous actors and directors as well as a glossary of key terms and list of Oscar winners).

A revamped section “Life and Leisure” now comprises “The World of Wine”, “The World of Dance”, and a special topic, “The Great Outdoors.” This is seamlessly followed by a “Sporting Almanac.” The astoundingly up-to-date “World of Science” proffers coverage of diverse fields such as astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and human evolution. It also comprises a variety of scientific tables. Medicine merits its own gateway, inevitably titled “Medical Matters”: the most common illnesses and conditions, some of them treated to in-depth analyses within special topics. A subject index caps this wondrous work of reference.

The Cyclopaedia is kept astoundingly up to date by a dedicated team of 30 or so scholar-contributors, headed by the indefatigable polymath, Dr. Chris Cook. "Affection" and "attachment" are terms rarely used in a review of a reference title, but, they are the ones that come to my mind as I contemplate the new (2012-2013) edition of Pears Cyclopaedia, one of many editions I possess. I confess to my addiction proudly: control freak that I am, I like to hold the Universe of Knowledge in the palm of my hand, in a manageable, pocket-sized form.

What renders this single volume unique is not that it is a cornucopia of facts (which it is, abundantly and lavishly so), but that it arranges them lovingly in patterns and narratives and, thus, endows them with sense and sensibility. It is at once an erudite friend, a mischievous iconoclast, a legend to our times, the sum total of human knowledge in a rich variety of fields, and a treasure-trove of trivia and miscellany. It is as compellingly readable as the best non-fiction, as comprehensive as you need it to be, and as diverting as a parlour game. It is both quaint and modern in the best senses of these loaded words.

Pears Cyclopaedia is a labour of love and it shows. Its current editor (formerly its Assistant Editor), Christopher Cook, has been at it for decades now. Annually, he springs a delicious surprise on the avid cult that is the readership of Pears Cyclopaedia: new topics that range from wine connoisseurship to gardening. This edition is not an exception, though the surprises are within the chapters.

At more than 1000 pages, Pears Cyclopaedia is a bargain. Alas, its distribution leaves something to be desired. I have spent the better part of a long afternoon searching for it in vain in London's bookshops. Last time I had it ordered in Europe, I waited for months on end for its arrival. It is also not exactly au courant on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It should be. Pears Cyclopaedia is wonderful, in the true meaning of this word: it is full of wonders and, therefore, is itself a wonder.

Pears Cyclopaedia 2015-6 Edition

This one volume cyclopaedia is maintained meticulously up to date by a dedicated team of scholar-contributors, headed by the indefatigable polymath, Dr. Chris Cook. Hundreds of entries in dozens of sections reflect the latest developments and knowledge in numerous areas of life. It is an astounding feat.

 

The 2012-2013 edition of Pears Cyclopaedia was the first major revision in some time. It added considerable heft to veteran chapters as well as re-introduced categories of knowledge from previous editions. This 2015-6 edition follows in its footsteps and is augmented with a Biblical Glossary, replete with coverage of the Apocrypha and a separate chapter on the Earth, its phenomena and sciences.

 

The “Chronicle of Events” is brought up to March 2015. The “Prominent People” section has been updated to include, for instance, David Cameron’s formation of a Conservative government (May 2015) and Lee Harper’s serendipitous new novel, “Go Set a Watchman”.

 

The “Background to World Affairs” – a compilation of chronologies arranged by country and monographs about the history and societies of the regions of the globe - is indispensable: it is as updated as an online blog and as thorough as an encyclopedia. Four pages are dedicated to the History and Development of the European Union.

 

“Britain Today” is by far the best synopsis of current affairs and statistics of that Sceptred Isle. It has been completely revamped to include a Who’s Who in British Politics and a Glossary of Recent Politics as well as chapters about “Redress of Grievances”, the media, and pressure groups. It offers a sweeping overview of the British constitution and system of government as well as Britain’s love-hate relationship with the EU.

 

“The Historical World” comprises a historical glossary, a guide to historic Britain, a dictionary of modern wars since 1914, annotated lists of famous battles and treaties and alliances, selected European rulers, a guide to historic Britain, and a comprehensive chapter about archaeological discoveries and sites.

 

The “General Compendium” is a treasury of tables and data and delectable lists, some useful, some quaint: English and Scottish monarchs, British Prime Ministers since 1721, US Presidents, foreign phrases, national currencies, Roman numerals, the international time-table, the Greek alphabet, common legal terms, Popes since 1800, Archbishops of Canterbury and York, traditional ranks in the armed forces, Roman rulers and towns, a digest of new words (including “selfie”), Nobel Prize winners, major literary prizes, famous ships, the order of succession, patron saints, the phonetic alphabet, the Chinese and Hindu calendars, the dates of Easter Day, signs of the zodiac, a glossary of antiques, taxes, British military anniversaries, and the Beaufort Scale of Wind.

 

The venerable and popular section “Myths and Legends” now covers not only Greece and Rome, but also Norse mythology. Pears provides a constantly-updated survey of “Ideas and Beliefs” throughout the centuries. The entry about euthanasia, for example, notes the efforts to reform legislation made in parliament by groups such as Dignity in Dying.

 

Regrettably, the Gazetteer of the British Isles is all that remains from the once excellent Atlas. It is followed by a much enlarged “General Information” gateway: a mini encyclopaedia with hundreds of listings pertaining to all fields of human knowledge, from astronomy and architecture to zoology. The entries are scrupulously au courant: under "Bridges", for instance, one learns that Turkey is now planning the world’s largest suspension bridge.

 

To augment these magnificent offerings, Pears Cyclopaedia provides a “Literary Companion” (outline of English literature arranged as a chronological survey, replete with biographical and bibliographic entries and surveys of twentieth-century poetry and drama); an “Introduction to Art and Architecture” (key terms, movements, and styles as well as biographies); “The World of Music” (outline historical narrative, glossary of musical terms, index to composers, and a special topic about popular dances in the West); “The Cinema” (its history and famous actors and directors as well as a glossary of key terms and list of Oscar winners up to and including 2013).

 

A massive section, aptly titled “Food and Drink”, tackles the world of wine (including a detailed treatment of the libations of Europe), proffers a glossary of food terms, discusses beer and brewing, spirits and liqueurs, only to revert to the quintessential Anglo-American delectable obsession of coffee and tea. This is seamlessly, albeit somewhat incongruously followed by a “Sporting Almanac.”

 

The “World of Science” comprises coverage of diverse fields such as astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and human evolution. It also sports a variety of scientific tables. Medicine merits its own gateway, inevitably titled “Medical Matters”: the most common illnesses and conditions, some of them treated to in-depth analyses within special topics. A subject index caps this wondrous work of reference.

 

"Affection" and "attachment" are terms rarely used in a review of a reference title, but, they are the ones that come to my mind as I contemplate the new (2014-2015) edition of Pears Cyclopaedia, one of many editions I possess. I confess to my addiction proudly: control freak that I am, I like to hold the Universe of Knowledge in the palm of my hand, in a manageable, pocket-sized form.

 

What renders this single volume unique is not that it is a cornucopia of facts (which it is, abundantly and lavishly so), but that it arranges them lovingly in patterns and narratives and, thus, endows them with sense and sensibility. It is at once an erudite friend, a mischievous iconoclast, a legend to our times, the sum total of human knowledge in a panoply of fields, and a treasure-trove of trivia and miscellany. It is as compellingly readable as the best non-fiction, as comprehensive as you need it to be, and as diverting as a parlour game. It is both quaint and modern in the best senses of these loaded words.

 

Pears Cyclopaedia is a labour of love and it shows. Its current editor (formerly its Assistant Editor), Christopher Cook, has been at it for decades now. Annually, he springs a delicious surprise on the avid cult that is the readership of Pears Cyclopaedia: new topics that range from wine connoisseurship to gardening. This edition is not an exception, though the surprises are within the chapters.

 

At more than 1000 pages, Pears Cyclopaedia is a bargain. It is now finally available on Amazon. Pears Cyclopaedia is wonderful, in the true meaning of this word: it is full of wonders and, therefore, is itself a wonder.

 

DISCLAIMER: I have purchased every single edition of Pears Cyclopaedia that I possess, except the last six, which were provided to me, as review copies, courtesy Penguin/Alan Lane.

 


The Case of Maltin’s Movie Guides: The Expert and the Crowd

Maltin, Leonard - Leonard Maltin’s 2012 Movie Guide – New-York and London – Penguin Group (Plume Books)

Maltin, Leonard - Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide – 2nd Edition (2010) - New-York and London – Penguin Group (Plume Books)

Maltin’s Movie Guide requires no booting, minimal “surfing”, and no software, or special hardware. It is always on and it is authoritative in the best sense of the word: implying erudition, not bullying. It is updated sufficiently frequently to remain relevant in its field, though, admittedly, a web presence with real-time capsule reviews, peer-reviewed content, and user-generated commentary would have leveraged the Maltin brand to good use. An iPhone/iPad app of the Guide is a step in the right direction, hopefully to be followed by a comparable Android offering.

In an age of crowdsourcing and mob “wisdom” made available on every mobile device, why invest in a reference book? With dozens of user reviews available on websites such as imdb.com and rottentomatoes.com for each film ever shot, however obscure – why bother with Maltin’s voluminous fine-print doorstopper movie guides? Because Maltin is the Britannica to imdb’s Wikipedia: he offers expertise where laymen merely register opinions.

There are two Maltin movie guides: the veteran and venerated “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide”, annually published since 1996 and a lighter-weight but equally authoritative “Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide” whose second edition covers movies made no later than 1965. The Guides are mutually exclusive: most films would be listed in either book, but not in both. Each volume proffers between 10,000 (the Classics Guide) and 17,000 (the annual tome) capsule reviews of movies and what a marvel these snippets are!

Each capsule review comes replete with a plethora of information culled from hundreds of sources: date of release, viewing time in minutes, a quality rating assigned by the Guide’s editors (more about them later) as well as the MPAA’s parental guidance rating, credits of directors and actors involved, a brief synopsis of the plot, and even gossip, cameo appearances, anecdotes, and the social and cultural context of the work – all neatly and articulately folded into a Tweet-like 100 words or less!

The annual Guide also includes an incisive and insightful essay (in the form of an introduction) about the current state of the cinematic arts and commerce; lists of movies by topic (this year it is the Favorite Films of the New Millennium); mail-order and online sources for home videos (a USA-centric feature, admittedly); a widescreen glossary; and an index of film stars (gone is the index of movie directors, alas!) each with his or her respective oeuvre. The Classic Guide augments these offerings with “25 vintage movies you really shouldn’t miss.”

Back to our opening salvo: why not stick with imdb, or rottentomatoes, both of which now aggregate critics’ reviews from a wide variety of sources, print and digital?

When one is faced with a health problem one consults a doctor or two (for a second opinion.) No one I have heard of confers with 10, 70, or 5000 doctors. The element of expertise is crucial. The authors-editors of the two Guides are not merely the world’s leading critics (which they are) – but some of them have actually worked in the film industry, bringing to the proverbial table invaluable insights gleaned first-hand. Moreover, the usefulness, indeed indispensability of an informed impartial guide grows in an environment of cacophonic background noise and random “lists”.

But surely cinema – as opposed to medicine – is a matter of taste and opinion rather than facts and figures? Well, yes and no. Filmmaking is a discipline which must be learned and assimilated methodically and in-depth. Many of its aspects are utterly objective. The same applies to film historiography. And when it comes to taste and opinion I would rather rely on Maltin’s than on any Joe Schmo with a keyboard and time to kill. Even when I wholeheartedly disagree with Maltin (“Black Swan”, “Blade Runner” and that’s only on one page of the Guide!), I find myself challenged, enlightened, provoked, and informed by the collective intelligence and unfathomable knowledge of the crew behind the book.

No lover of the movies should go without a Maltin Guide (or two.)

DISCLAIMER: I have bought every single edition of Maltin’s Guides that I possess, except the last two, which were provided to me, as review copies, courtesy Penguin/Alan Lane.


The Oldale Curiosity Shop

“Who, or Why, or Which, or What: A Global Gazetteer of the Instructive and Strange” by John Oldale – London and New-York, Particular Books (Penguin Group), 2011

The classic gazetteer is a numbing compilation of places: their names, their coordinates in an attendant eye-taxing mini-atlas, and some raw data, usually presented in an utterly indecipherable manner. Enough to put one off travel – and reading - for good.

Imagine my surprise then, when I warily stole a peek inside the covers of John Aldale’s gazetteer. In decades of avid – nay, compulsive – immersion in reference works dating back three centuries I do not recall having come across a tome remotely similar to this concoction! The author being an adventurer and globe-trotting traveller in the Lawrence of Arabia mold may have something to do with it.

The gazetteer’s design is traditional: the countries of the world are arranged alphabetically. But here all resemblance to any geographical dictionary you have ever beheld ends.

Each country has its name written in English and in its own script. This nod to local civilization is followed by a joyous, riotous, and unrestrained train of historical, cultural, social, and political associations, a veritable and delectable cornucopia of anecdotes, facts, factoids, quotes, myths, curiosities, and oddities. It feels like rummaging through an inordinately mysterious and endowed attic in a manor that’s 5000 years old. The entire ensemble is handsomely illustrated with photos, diagrams, charts, and drawings.

Two countries I know well and first-hand are Israel and Macedonia. I used these polities to test the validity and relevance of the book’s contents.

I was surprised by the author’s choice to dedicate a mere 2 pages to Israel, the cradle of all Western and Middle-Eastern religions, and the target of conquering armies from the Babylonians to the Crusades. In comparison, Italy got 5 pages. I was also somewhat puzzled by the author’s selection of trivia which I did not think captured Israel’s spirit or its history. But when I turned the leaf to Macedonia, I was rewarded with a timely exposition of all the issues that characterize the territory and its complex relations with its neighbours, including its current overwhelming  identity crisis.

“I couldn’t put the book down” is by now a trite cliché used in every book review. But I really couldn’t: this book is an enchantment, a time travel, an adventure park, and a rounded education all wrapped into one and doused in dollops of wry humor and compassion. I learned, I laughed, I felt provoked and comforted, it sent me searching furiously for answers online and in other books, it made me daydream, or sit up startled. It is the kind of book that keeps on giving long after its perusal is over.

DISCLAIMER: The book was provided to me, as a review copy, courtesy Penguin Group.


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