Books: Reference - When pulp facts prove stranger than fiction

All of us know about those tragic nerds who love to browse in reference books. The type's definitive portrait appears in Mike Leigh's painfully funny Nuts in May, when the bearded control-freak camper Keith zips up his tent-flap and turns away from his hippy wife, Candice-Marie. "What are you reading, Keith". "The Guinness Book of Records." Quite.

That comes from memory. What if I wanted to check the details? As a one- off BBC production, fitfully released on video, Nuts in May fails to feature in any of the main cinema companions - even in my perennial favourite, the eclectic and astute Time Out Film Guide (ed. John Pym, Penguin, pounds 13.99). Neither can you find it in Mark Lewisohn's bulky but sitcom-centred Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy (BBC, pounds 19.99). I finally tracked down Nuts in May - complete with a five-star rating, no less - in a US import: Mick Martin and Marsha Porter's Video Movie Guide 1999 (Ballantine Books, pounds 10). And who played put-upon Candice-Marie so perfectly? Alison Steadman, of course.

Confronted, as I have been, with a stack of plump new reference tomes, the temptation is to praise their faultless editing and exhaustive coverage. Until, that is, you genuinely have to discover something fast. Then the thwarted seeker learns that tricky questions of category and definition matter almost as much as the sheer amount of stuff inside.

Although, of course, one craves enough breadth as well. When Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago won the Nobel in October, I scanned the new edition of the Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia (CUP, pounds 35) in vain. No Saramago, but heaps on Susan Sarandon. Cambridge gives you more, in fact, on the feisty Thelma & Louise star than on Satie, Sappho, Sassoon or Singer Sargent, all on the same spread. To be fair, it had never let me down before.

The Nobels always miss the deadline for the annual almanacs (Whitaker's Almanack, The Stationery Office, pounds 35; Pears Cyclopedia, Penguin, pounds 16.99; and the new, pretty comprehensive Hutchinson Almanac, Helicon, pounds 35). But what if (topically speaking) I needed to find out more about Chile and the Law Lords? Pears, that scatty, old-fashioned miscellany, could never seriously do such a job, though it oozes wayward charm. Hutchinson names the Lords of Appeal - but they're hard to find - and does better than Whitaker on Chilean history. Yet Whitaker still scores where it counts most. Quickly (thanks to a clearer index), it also gives me the ages of the Law Lords, their dates of appointment, even how much they earn: pounds 138,889 p.a. On Chile, it names the entire cabinet and tots up Chile's exports to Britain (pounds 393m) as well as its imports from us: a mere pounds 210m. Crucial nuggets, and only Whitaker has them.

In other fields, "facts" can notoriously befuddle as much as they enlighten. Even the otherwise handy and reliable Economist Pocket World in Figures (Profile Books, pounds 10) sometimes blurs the boundary betwen stats and views. The quality-of-life ranking of the world's most civilised cities places Vancouver and (wait for it) Auckland at the top, with scant explanation of its basis. The good life, or a quiet death?

As for the actual Guinness Book of Records, (Guinness Publishing, pounds 18), its boiled egg-scoffing, bungee-jumping "records" mostly exist only because of the book that reports them. These days, our Keith would have more fun in his tent in the company of Russell Ash's quirky Top Ten of Everything (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 12.99), with its impeccable nose for the uselessly perfect fact. Smallest defence budget? Equatorial Guinea. Bestselling Eighties UK album? Abba's Super Trouper. Top coffee-drinking nation? Finland , average 1584 cups p.a.

At which point, someone will echo Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction and say that's a little more information than they need right now. A genuine rarity, this: a modern quote that slipped into the spoken language within months. So will we find it the new Oxford Dictionary of 20th-Century Quotations (OUP, pounds 16.99)? Not a chance - no Tarantino at all, not even the Royale with cheese, although I did enjoy the prophylactic selection of common misquotations ("Play it again, Sam"; "Crisis? What crisis?"). As the lines people genuinely cite pass unrecorded, Oxford offers instead such Wildean sparklers as the trounced John Major saying "When the final curtain comes down, it's time to get off the stage". I can just imagine hearing that in the pub.

Revisions of the reference classics always leave loose ends. In 1985, Margaret Drabble supervised a thorough update of the Oxford Companion to English Literature. That was then; this is now, but the Companion's latest version (OUP, pounds 25) has somehow pickled those Eighties judgments on the "contemporary" scene. So: William Boyd in, Graham Swift out; Anita Brookner in, Pat Barker out; Michael Holroyd in, Richard Holmes out... Some perfunctory essays on genres (such as Gothic or Spy fiction) and critical trends (Structuralism, Post-Colonial Literature) end up sounding skimpy or naive. The Post-Colonial section even manages to name the 1997 Booker winner as "Arundhati Roi" (sic).

Enough carping. Well-conceived and niftily executed reference works can give endless pleasure to more than just the Keiths. Jonathon Green's Cassell Dictionary of Slang (pounds 25) yields 1,300 pages of disreputable delight from its aagey-wala (Hindi, penis, and one of Green's 997 terms for the male part) to its zuke (US campus, vomit). The Dorling Kindersley Visual Dictionary (pounds 7.99) will expunge all the doodahs and thingumees from your encounters with the innards of motors, molluscs or mosques, while the same firm's sumptuous slab Art: a world history (pounds 40) proves hard to put down - if you can pick it up at all.

Music-obsessed Keiths may have the same problem with Martin C Strong's insanely meticulous Great Rock Discography (Canongate, pounds 25). I hauled it up when the Bobby Womack number Tarantino used in Jackie Brown ("Across 110th Street") started spooling through my brain. Yet Strong passes straight from Jah Wobble to Stevie Wonder. So back to the trusty but far from bland Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (ed. Donald Clarke, pounds 16.99), which tells me that Womack's brother Harry "was shot dead by a jealous girlfriend who found a woman's clothes in his closet; they belonged to Bobby's girlfriend". And that's as much information as I need right now.

Reference Books

by Boyd Tonkin

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone