Books for Christmas: Reference - An odyssey of facts for students of Homer (Simpson)

LIFE IS short and reference books are long, but one can never have enough of them. As such, one of the most enjoyable books of the Nineties is James Wood's Dictionary of Quotations (Warne), who ranges far from familiar territory and hopes that we shall "be generous to acquit him of having compiled either a superfluous or an unserviceable volume".

These are the principles by which to judge a reference work, even 100 years after Wood. Such books might appear to contradict the Professor Blackie cited by Wood - "avoid miscellaneous reading" - but a stray fact can yield more than systematic reading. A far cry from Wood's moral tone is Jonathon Green, whose little Big Book of Filth (Cassell, pounds 6.99) contains 6500 sexual expressions, such as "get wood". But Green, like Wood, is an independent spirit, not a corporate drone. Even so, Filth is less satisfying than the Dictionary of Slang (Cassell, pounds 25) from which it is spun off. Language still remains ceaselessly inventive, such as the Australian coining for female pubic hair: a mapatassie, from its resemblance to the shape of Tasmania.

Seek discreet medical attention should you resemble page 329 of Dorling Kindersley's World Atlas (pounds 29.99), which uses a carbuncular, 3-D approach as well as the panoply of photographic effects which are the firm's hallmark. This is one of the year's great bargains, a shot across the bows of The Times World Atlas (HarperCollins, pounds 125) which it will not sink, for a seemingly dry parade of names and facts has a poetry of its own, which has also been the style of Whitaker's Almanack (The Stationery Office, pounds 40). Although printed too soon for the Lords' demise, it notes another aspect of our times: MI6 and MI5 are listed, albeit with box-numbers redolent of a porn firm, but only the latter gives a telephone number. The Hutchinson Almanac undercuts it at pounds 30; flashier, but useful, it omits the Secret Service.

The new Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (pounds 25) is again sabotaged by spurious relevancy. The editor, Elizabeth Knowles, an authority on Old Norse, seems to have a cloth ear, and includes worthy but woolly remarks by Buchi Echmeta and Salman Rushdie, who probably do not remember them. (Still, she does remind us that his slogan "naughty but nice" was a 1939 movie title.) Should a book of quotations be arranged by author or subject? One needs both, and the Collins Quotation Finder (pounds 14.99) would be better if the text had been aligned so that the next page does not show. Such hefty volumes are better value than paperback spin-offs, but one is happy to browse in the likes of Peter D'Epiro's number-based cultural listing, What Are The Seven Wonders of the World? (Metro, pounds 9.99).

After a pedantic dispute in the TLS, William Boyd said that Adrian Room "must be Julian Barnes under another pseudonym". In fact, Room exists, a former lecturer in Russian at the Ministry of Defence. His serviceably idiosyncratic revision of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Cassell, pounds 25) does not prevent Terry Pratchett's foreword from hoping the publisher will keep an earlier version in print. Pratchett is a true reference-book buff; and look where it's got him.

A simple glance shows that Simon Jenkins's England's Thousand Best Churches (Allen Lane, pounds 25) is masterly, perhaps a masterpiece. There will be cavils (no mention of John Meade Falkner at Burford): but even a virulent atheist will shower you with thanks. The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs (pounds 19.99) is hardly superflous, but in our era of abundant CDs has a problem if it is to be serviceable. If the veteran editors sometimes have to stop themselves from lamenting that things have never been the same since the Walter Legge era and if their prose is less witty than the magnificent Penguin Guide to Jazz, each edition remains an essential purchase. As is every third edition of Halliwell's Film Guide (HarperCollins, pounds 19.99). It is the right side of fusty, best read in tandem with Leonard Maltin's Guide (Signet, pounds 7.99), but only Halliwell has Walter Forde's Cheer Boys Cheer, that splendid 1939 comedy about rival breweries which resemble England and Germany.

Every publisher dreams of a format that can be used time and again. Phaidon came up with one in The Art Book: it's echoed in Sister Wendy's 1000 Masterpieces (DK, pounds 29.95) which only the blase would scorn. Meanwhile, Phaidon's The Movie Book (pounds 24.95), with a large still for every 200 words of text, is a pointless way of summing up the moving image - and a shaky grasp of the alphabet means you might miss Bunuel.

With Britannica on-line (and free), does one need an encyclopaedia? Yes, for paper is faster, and, by sticking to the knitting, the handy Macmillan (pounds 29.99) not only has the edge over Hutchinson (pounds 40) but finds a place for Scunthorpe between sculpture and scurvy. Simply to mention American National Biography (Oxford, pounds 1500) might make one appear a sharpster, but I have written on these 24 elegant volumes elsewhere, and consult them most days. When too many reference works are a snack, these are a feast and also make one eager for the new edition of our DNB, whose editor Colin Matthew - like James Wood - died with the work in production. Grief is eased by the unbounded wit of Matt Groening's second Simpsons companion, Simpsons Forever, (HarperCollins, pounds 14.95), as abundantly filled as the series itself.

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