Seventy years ago, a bunch of people doubted that The Oxford Companion to English Literature would produce much in the way of sales. But a determined editor named Kenneth Sisam thought otherwise: “Think how journalists will revel in it, or a solver of crossword puzzles, or an American lady in search of learned dinner-table conversation!”
That was almost half-a-million copies ago–counting only the fifth and sixth editions. Not even the Oxford University Press, which publishes the book, knows exactly how many copies have been bought since the first edition came out in 1932. Let’s just say the skeptics were a little off the mark.
Today, there are dozens of thick and weighty Oxford Companions, on everything from the sacred (The Bible) to the profane (The Body). There are also consumer-oriented titles on Food and Wine. Even a book like The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History–I am not making this up–fills 344 pages, which is pretty short by Oxford standards.
I’ve certainly done my share to keep the enterprise afloat: I currently own 17 Oxford Companions and just bought a few more online. The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History is not one of them. But I do have the Oxford Companions to Military History, American Military History, and World War II. I also have Archaeology, Classical Civilization, and Ships and the Sea.
What is an Oxford Companion? “It’s a general-interest research tool,” says Casper Grathwohl, an Oxford editor in New York. “It’s written by scholars, but not for scholars.”
I consult them constantly as reference works. When I’m writing, it seems as though hardly a day goes by when I don’t look up something like the Embargo Act of 1807–and when I do, there’s a clear and crisp explanation. And in case you think I’m trying to sound like a pedantic showoff, let me assure you: I recently looked up the Embargo Act of 1807 because I didn’t have a clue.
The best thing about the Oxford Companions, however, is that they’re downright engrossing. It’s possible to pick one up and lose yourself in it for hours, because the topic entries are well chosen and the writing is lively. One of my recent favorites in the series is The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, which came out earlier this year. I’m not sure why “modern” is in the title–the editor defines “modern” to mean anything since Columbus, so there are entries on “Alchemy” and “Astrology.” There are also “Black Holes,” “Einstein, Albert,” and “Quantum Physics.”
The content is typically fascinating. In college, I took a course on science-fiction literature. The first book we studied was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, I learned that the roots go deeper: “One of the first writers of science fiction was Johannes Kepler, whose posthumously published Somnium (1634) explained and defended the heliocentric model of the solar system by describing the astronomical observations of a man transported to the Moon by demons.” Got that? Kepler was a genre writer.
The entry for “Extraterrestrial Life” is also fun to read, though it concludes on a grim note: “Would intercourse with extraterrestrials be beneficial?…Anthropological studies of primitive societies confident of their place in the universe find them disintegrating upon contact with an advanced society pursuing different values and ways of life.”
Browsing through an Oxford Companion invites all sorts of unexpected discoveries. I recently read the entry for “Burke, Edmund” in the British History volume. Right after it comes a short entry for “Burke and Hare.” Wondering if this had anything to do with good old Edmund, I kept on going–and learned that Burke and Hare were 19th-century murderers who delivered corpses to Scottish medical schools. This led to at least half an hour of Internet reading on the topic. Perhaps that’s time wasted. But I found it fun.
The Internet, of course, poses a huge threat to reference works. When everything you need to know is just a Google search away, does it really make sense to shell out lots of cash for all these reference books? I say yes, and emphatically. My computer isn’t always on and even a laptop isn’t as conveniently portable as a book. The Oxford Companions don’t have batteries that need to be recharged or wires that must be plugged in. Most important, I’m skeptical about a lot of what I encounter on the web, but I trust everything I read in an Oxford Companion. There are some great brand names among reference works, such as Bartlett’s, Benet’s, Britannica, Roget’s, and Webster’s. At the top of the heap is Oxford. If you read something in one of these books, you can take it to the bank.
An enormous amount of work goes into each one. Grathwohl tells me that a brand-new volume takes years to produce. He joined Oxford University Press six years ago and almost immediately contracted for the Oxford Companion to Exploration. It will finally see publication next fall.
And I’ll probably get around to buying it. For now, I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite Oxford Companion entries–each of them stumbled upon in the last few weeks.
‐”Oxfordian,” in the Shakespeare volume. This would seem to be a touchy subject. Yet it’s handled with panache, and includes this wonderful line: “The view that [Edward] de Vere supplemented his more public involvement with poetry and the theater by secretly writing the Shakespeare canon in his spare time was first put forward by the unfortunately named Thomas J. Looney.”
‐”Jungle, The” (i.e., the name of Upton Sinclair’s famous muckraking novel) in the United States History tome: “While Sinclair’s goal was to expose the evils of industrial capitalism and demonstrate the need for socialism, the public’s reaction was very different. … Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. Commented a disappointed Sinclair: ‘I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.’”
‐ “Dien Bien Phu, battle of,” in the Military History book: “The siege proceeded in Vauban style, with the attackers sapping towards the French strong points, all incongruously given girls’ names.” Don’t you love that? A reference book knocking the French for sounding wimpy! (And in case you’re like me and don’t know the first thing about a Vauban-style siege, there’s a separate entry on Vauban. It turns out that this military innovator was a French dude–the Oxford Companions are full of surprises.)
If you’ve made it this far, it probably means you probably could stand a bonus extract. So here’s what The Oxford Companion to the English Language (not to be confused with the English Literature volume) says about “Ghost Word”: “An item, especially in handwriting or print, that is taken to be a word but is not…. A classic 20c ghost word was described in 1976 by the US lexicographer Allen Walker Read: Dord, listed as a synonym of density in Webster’s Second International Dictionary (1934). This error arose from misinterpreting ‘D or d,’ used to show that density could be abbreviated as either D or d. The mistake was put right in the next edition, by which time, however, Dord had begun to haunt other dictionaries.”
It’s time to invent a new ghost word: Oxcellent.