Daniel Hahn tells us why, in the interent age, there is still a place for good reference books…
Basic information is easy to come by. Reference books need to do more, these days, than merely tell you that Huckleberry Finn was written by Mark Twain and published in the US in 1885. There aren’t many people who would turn to a reference book for that kind of information, I think.
So they need to be full of colour and full of stories – did you know that Huckleberry Finn was meant to be published in the US in 1884, but was delayed because a disgruntled engraver tampered with the plates, adding a penis to one of the illustrations so publication had to be postponed while it was removed? – but it also needs, I think, an editorial voice.
In the Wikipedia age, reference books should embrace the fact that they have a kind of personal curation, that the entries on writers aren’t merely bibliographic lists but a kind of assessment, too, that they are evaluative, editorialised. (I hope there are also a handful of good jokes, perhaps.)
So my Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature often doesn’t merely tell you which books an author wrote when and what they’re about (though that’s important, too, and accuracy is vital), but how they fit together, and which works are the most accomplished, and what the flaws are, and who are the other writers in the same chain of influence; who I think is amazing but underrated, who produces work that may be massively best-selling but is also desperately derivative.