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.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?