Books: Reference - When pulp facts prove stranger than fiction

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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