BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS / Reference & Encyclopedias: Pure genius rules the database

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The Independent Culture
BEFORE the despotism of the database, the realm of information was a free-for-all and purveyors of fact could dabble at will in fiction. None did so more shamelessly than Hearst journalist Robert Ripley, whose Believe It or Not] column dealt in cigar-smoking dogs, women who applied blow-torches to their tongues and men who hammered six-inch nails into their heads. In You'll Never Believe It (Virgin pounds 12.99), Mark Sloan and others have resurrected 'curioddities' from Ripley's files which 'stretch the limits of mind, body and imagination'. They also tickle the fancy and insult the intelligence.

Ripley's successor was Norris McWhirter, whose Guinness Book of Records (pounds 14.99) is now in its 40th edition. It too celebrates achievements like the simultaneous twirling of 108 plates or the writing of 'God bless you' 28 times on a human hair. The difference is that these bizarre feats are authentic. Fantastic though it seems, we can be pretty sure that the world's heaviest woman was 75 stone, for everything has been checked and recorded electronically.

In fact the Guinness database is pure genius. It spawns other reference books faster than you can dot a matrix. Clickety-click and out chugs The Guinness Book of Railway Facts and Feats (pounds 14.99). It includes an attack on privatisation and should keep your train buff happy for hours while he waits on some draughty station platform. Press another button and up pops The Guinness Encyclopedia ( pounds 29.95). Unlike its rivals this is arranged by theme rather than name, the worthy purpose being to avoid alphabetical snippets and convey understanding. So you can only find out about Winston Churchill by reading the two-page spread on the Second World War.

That in itself is a snippet, of course, and any single-volume encyclopedia (from the Greek for 'general education') is bound to be oxymoronic. In practice, therefore, it's probably better to have instant access to potted information via the traditional A-Z layout. An attractive exemplar of this method is The Hutchinson Encyclopedia (Helicon pounds 35 and, for the concise version, pounds 20). It's easier to use than the smaller Pears Cyclopedia (pounds 14.99), which is divided into sections like General Information, Economic Events and Medical Matters. Pears has its merits, including incisive writing on literature and ideas. But Hutchinson has bigger print, better paper, lavish illustrations and marginal quotations which are often piquant and sometimes pertinent.

Although it mis-spells Macaulay, Hutchinson has an up-dated database which gives it an impressive degree of accuracy. The same cannot be said for Bamber Gascoigne's Encyclopedia of Great Britain (Macmillan pounds 29.95), which is in its first rather than its 10th edition. This is a collection of domestic general knowledge of the kind that competitors in University Challenge ought to have at their fingertips. They ought also to know that the First World War did not start six days after the Sarajevo assassination, that the young Churchill was not 'posted' to Cuba, and that Alfred Russel Wallace was spelt thus.

Less defensibly, Chronicle of the 20th Century (Chronicle pounds 39.95) merely reprints its old mistakes. For example, it misdates Mosley's Olympia rally. The volume provides a striking chronological conspectus and is fun for browsing. But its journalistic compilers offer no interpretation. They also muddle together contemporary reports and subsequent knowledge, so one never knows what people knew at the time.

Whether the facts in Matthew Bunson's Vampire Encyclopedia (Thames & Hudson pounds 9.95) are correct only the Undead can tell. Is it true, for example, that since vampires feed on blood they have little incentive to improve their dental hygiene? One would have thought the opposite was the case, especially as Count Dracula seems to have had worse halitosis than General de Gaulle. However, pumpkins and watermelons, which turn into walking corpses if fed on gore, apparently have no teeth to clean - surely an insurmountable handicap. Evidently this book, dedicated to the late great Vincent Price, must be taken with a pinch of salt as well as lots of garlic.

Certainly the exploits of Vlad the Impaler and his colleagues are more risible than anything to be found in The Penguin Dictionary of Jokes (pounds 16.99). This is odd because its compiler, Fred Metcalf, also edited the sparkling Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations. His present volume reads as though it was spatchcocked together by a computer which confused wit with half-wit. It prints this quip twice: 'I'm going now, but should I return during my absence, please don't wait for me till I come back.'

Fred Shapiro's Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations (pounds 35) sounds dull but is brilliant by comparison. It deserves a place on every British lawyer's bookshelf - for two reasons. First, it's an excellent anthology of the wisdom of transatlantic justices such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said that 'to have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilised man'. Secondly, it reveals that our own flails of the legal profession, Bentham and Dickens, cooed like sucking doves. Ambrose Bierce said that dice were 'constructed like a lawyer to lie on any side, but commonly the wrong one'. And H L Mencken defined a lawyer as 'one who protects us against robbery by taking away the temptation'.

Equally instructive but of wider import is Chris Scarre's Timelines of the Ancient World (Dorling Kindersley pounds 25). This is 'a visual chronology from the origins of life to AD 1500' and it provides a new view of the past through vivid illustrations of human development in different parts of the world. It's fascinating to see, for instance, a great blank in the Americas before 18000 BC, when art and ritual were quite advanced in Africa, Asia and Europe. Indeed an astonishing amount was accomplished before the carving of the famous palette of Narmer (3100 BC), which is proudly exhibited in the Cairo Museum as the first great artefact of civilisation.

The limitations of such a big pictorial overview, however, are starkly revealed by John Boardman's Oxford History of Classical Art (pounds 35) and Peter Salway's Oxford History of Roman Britain (pounds 25). Whereas Timelines is a taster, these are intellectual feasts. They are expertly written, marvellously illustrated and full of enlightenment. At a time when John Patten advocates flag-wagging as an educational panacea it's good to read about Agricola, who championed the teaching of the liberal arts as a cure for British barbarism. Stamped with the mark of individual, not artificial, intelligence, these Oxford histories offer an antithesis to the processed data presented in the last three books under review.

The Chambers Dictionary of World History (pounds 30) is handy for quick reference, but no more than that. The entry on Lord John Russell is so sketchy it does not even mention that he introduced the Reform Bill. The same sort of criticism applies to Bloomsbury's Guide to Human Thought (pounds 19.99), which is marred by technical jargon but helped by suggestions for further reading. Similarly Cassell's Companion to Contemporary European Culture (pounds 14.99) gives one a little knowledge about everything from deconstruction to spaghetti westerns; like some of the hardback digests, however, it reads like a megabitten software package. Information technology confers many benefits, not least the possibility of miraculous precision. But it also tempts publishers to produce reference books which are the cultural equivalent of a Spellcheck programme.