All for the Love of a Good Reference Book

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There's a bookish love letter from writer Lois Leveen in The New York Times this week. It is an ode to her adored thesaurus, or, as she titles it, "the king of writerly tools." Ah, the thesaurus—a word that means treasure, or collection. It's a book of words, which means people who love words are prone to love it, too, regardless of its (arguable) lack of plot, characters, suspense, and narrative arc. The ability to look up a synonym with ease is something special and might even be called a dying art, no matter whether you're doing it the traditional way, turning the pages of a print entity, or searching for the perfect word online. 

In Leveen's piece, she fondly recalls the times she's had with her thesaurus, a longstanding member of her family for "more than 26 years," an entity to which she once wrote a love poem. Maybe that's understandable given how they complete one another's sentences, she explains, or, at least, given the way the thesaurus completes hers. She remembers when they first met, as she searched for a word that meant the same thing as orange. Her Roget's International, Fourth Edition, served up "orangish and orangey, and also ocherous, ochry and ochroid. Helianthin and Rubens’ madder. Not to mention a produce-section’s worth of apricot, carroty, tangerine, peach and pumpkin. And that was just one entry, taking up less than half of one column of a single page."

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'Twas the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Fast-forward to two and a half decades later, "In all the years my thesaurus and I have been together, I’ve found few things as gratifying as reaching for it, consulting numerous entries and reaping the reward of encountering an elusive word," she writes. But the thesaurus is a tool, not a human, she is quick to note. That book of words can only give you what you need to think or write better for yourself, and think yourself you must. "When I taught composition, one of the cardinal rules I imparted to my students was never utilize ‘utilize’ when you can use ‘use,'" writes Leveen. "Thesaurus in hand, a writer can substitute longer, more arcane words just to try to make prose sound more erudite—but end up sounding like a ninny instead." Still, even as her thesaurus has aged, and may not include all the latest words, it's reliable, more comprehensive than just about anything else, and "provides a pleasurable physicality, akin to what some authors experience writing longhand," she gushes. Sounds like true love.

A thesaurus, of course, is not the only book writers and semantic-minded types find themselves intertwined with on some pretty passionate literary levels. Out today from Little, Brown is My Ideal Bookshelf, edited by Thessaly La Force and illustrated by Jane Mount, which chronicles the books that have mattered most to contributors ranging from Malcolm Gladwell to Michael Chabon to Patti Smith to Chuck Klosterman to Jennifer Egan. And many more. According to the book description, "The books that we choose to keep—let alone read—can say a lot about who we are and how we see ourselves." And reference books that we keep for reference can be anything, so long as we return to them over and over again. In honor of these humble workhorses of writing, we asked for nominations of others deserving of their own odes. 

Ben Zimmer, linguist, lexicographer, and language columnist, told us, "I wrote my own 'ode to the thesaurus' earlier this year—see my piece for Lapham's Quarterly." In that piece, an adaptation of his introduction to the new edition of the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, Zimmer describes Roget's great tome as "a guidebook to help us travel around the semantic space of our shared lexicon, grasping both the similarities that bond words together and the nuances that differentiate them." He explained further to the Atlantic Wire, "Like Ms. Leveen, I'm a fan of the printed thesaurus, despite the criticism that writers have often heaped on it. But I also think that interactive online tools like the Visual Thesaurus (of which I am executive producer) can complement the experience of printed reference works to create a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of words and their meanings."

Peter Sokolowski, editor at large, Merriam-Webster"For me it has to be the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. 1600 pages and absolutely fantastic reading. It gives short, informed, opinionated essays on every jazz recording in print, with only the barest of biographical details about the artists—because only the music matters. In rare instances I disagree with the authors, Brian Morton and the late Richard Cook. But because I so trust their taste and the perfect balance of awareness and irreverence they brought to the task, I feel an urgent need to sit down with them to explain what they're not hearing over a pint. They are trusted friends rather than faceless and judgmental arbiters; what they created was a reference book brimming with personality."

Silvia Killingsworth, The New Yorker, A-issue editor. "Mine would have to be not an ode but a symphony, dedicated to some of the resources I have grown to love while correcting and being corrected. It would begin with Webster's Eleventh (allegro), the go-to dictionary for The New Yorker's copy department, with a shout-out to the M-W iPhone app, which I have been known to whip out in the middle of restaurants. Next would be the blessed OED (adagio), which I have never used so much as one semester in college when I took a class on the history and structure of the English language—it's like English: The Deep Cuts. Third would be the New Oxford American Dictionary (minuet), which comes preloaded on Mac computers, and which you can conveniently search through Spotlight (I am a fan of keyboard shortcuts). Finally would be David Foster Wallace's Harper's essay, "Tense Present," (rondo) a piece of writing I return to again and again to remind myself that someone else once fretted just as tirelessly as I do about how best to say what I mean."

Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large, Oxford English Dictionary"In very brief: the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. It's one of the best reference books ever published—truly informative, genuinely useful, wonderfully witty, and unlike any other book on the subject. That and the OED would make any desert island a very comfortable place indeed."

Kory Stamper, lexicographer, Merriam-Webster. "I read so many books over and over again that I can hardly keep track of them all, but one I'd love to write an ode to is Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary. Though Samuel Johnson would absolutely abhor me as as an American and therefore someone who deserves hanging, I adore his scholarship and his wit. The amount of work he managed to do in about eight years is astounding to a modern lexicographer, and I wish that I had been able to define the word beetleheaded as "...having a head stupid," then finishing it off with Shakespeare's "A whoreson, beetleheaded, flap-ear’d knave." I have fellow-feeling for Johnson: he was the son of booksellers and his childhood friends were books. You can tell reading through his Dictionary that he was not just an excellent critical thinker, but a lover of story and language as well. If I weren't a horrible American, I think we'd get along very well."

Michael Rundell, editor in chief, Macmillan Dictionaries, asked, "Can I cheat a little and write an 'ode to a corpus?'" [We said yes.] He explains, "The corpus is the raw material lexicographers use as a basis for describing what words mean and how they behave. It's a massive collection of real language data in digital form (including newspapers, novels, academic textbooks, blogs, transcribed spoken language, and so on) which we analyze using powerful 'corpus-querying software' (the Sketch Engine is the best-known example of this:). So it's not just one book but tens of thousands of them. Without it, we'd be relying mainly on our own (unreliable) intuitions or on collections of index cards (very old-fashioned, and there are never enough of them). The first electronic corpus of English was created in the U.S. as long ago as 1962 (at Brown University) and contained one million words of English from a wide range of sources. Since then America has lagged behind. In the U.K., most dictionary publishers use corpora (that's the plural) of two billion (yes, billion) words or more. There's more about 'corpus-based lexicography' here."

Macmillan has now suspended print and gone online-only for reasons relevant to the thesaurus as well. Rundell wrote in a blog post, "Dictionaries are different from other books. Like maps and encyclopedias—but unlike novels or newspapers—dictionaries are things you consult (while you’re doing something else) rather than things you read. For any kind of reference enquiry, the book really can be improved upon, and at Macmillan, we’ve taken the decision to phase out printed dictionaries and focus on our rich and expanding collection of digital resources."

Of course, what we love to consult varies as much as the forms, digital and otherwise, in which we prefer to do that consulting. Some personal favorites for this writer—confessing everything here!—are, in good old-fashioned dogeared print, The Secret Language of Birthdays; Linda Goodman's perfectly '70s and amazingly, sometimes hilariously crafted Love Signs, The Elements of Style (of course), and, online,, which I consult at least several times daily. But I will never forget my brief, several-years-long affair with The Chicago Manual of StyleThose were great times, weren't they? 

Did we miss your great reference book love? Feel free to tell us about it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.