Once upon a time, when I was still living with my parents, a frequent Saturday morning activity was the completion of the weekend general knowledge crossword. Me and my dad would scrabble through an entire bookshelf full of reference books to figure out the answers and gleefully write them in.
We would consult encyclopedic dictionaries, books of quotations, Enquire Within, the Pears Encyclopedia, the Guinness Book of Records, the Times atlas, and all manner of random books containing miscellaneous information. There was something thrilling about mining the information from the tomes lined up on the wall.
These days, however, all you need is Google and a smart phone.
These days, the moment you want to know anything, you can find out in less than 30 seconds.
When it comes to completing crosswords, though, it totally feels like cheating to use Google — whereas taking the time and effort to look up the answers in books did not. Maybe it was due to the process of choosing which book, or the pleasure of allowing ourselves to be sidetracked by all the other little gems of information found along the way as we flicked through the pages.
On the discard pile
I had occasion to think on all this recently when I was de-cluttering and, ahem, cleaning my study. At the end of this process I had accumulated a few boxes full of items to be discarded. At least one of those boxes is still lurking in a corner, filled with several reference books.
I have hoarded these reference books for years. The stash includes two nice boxed sets of literary references:
- The Oxford Library of Words and Phrases (Quotations, Proverbs, Word Origins)
- The Oxford Library of English Usage (Grammar, Spelling, Usage)
It broke my heart to relegate them to the discard pile, but the fact remains I really don’t need them.
Know a fragment of a quotation? Google will tell you who said it, or where it’s from, much quicker than the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations can . . . Need some advice on some controversial grammar point? Yep, you got it: Just ask Google.
That’s not to say I’m getting rid of all my literary reference books — the photo shows which ones I’m keeping (including a slim volume of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style — mainly for posterity). But although I will occasionally dig out the thesaurus, in truth I am far more likely to go to dictionary.com and its affiliates.
Still, I can’t help but think it’s sad the way reference books have been superseded by the Interwebs.
What about Encyclopedia Britannica?
Back when I was at school, owning the multi-volume Encyclopedia Britannica was something to aspire to for many families. It looked majestic on the bookshelf and cost thousands of dollars for a full set. Most of us had to be content with browsing through it in the library.
Now it looks like they don’t even make it in book form anymore — you can get it all on DVD-ROM for about $40. Or subscribe to the web site for $70 a year. Or get the smart phone/tablet app.
But back then there was something amazing about turning the pages and browsing through all that wonderful information.
What’s more it was reliable information — although with a (these days untenable) tendency to go out of date…
Fast, diverse, current
I suppose for the purpose of speed, currency and diversity of sources, the Web is a superior information gathering resource — so long as we are discerning and analytical.
Yet the Web certainly does not teach us patience.
Today I look at my reference books on the shelf, smile affectionately, and resolve to consult them more often — especially the classics like Strunk & White. But then the very next chance I get I’m Googling again.
Nonetheless, I’m half inclined to return my Oxford Library box sets to the shelf, after all. They haven’t actually made it out the door yet. What harm could there be to keep them?
What’s your reference book collection like? Do you find yourself Googling more than consulting a book for information? Do you think this is a good thing?