Christmas Books Special: Reference books reviewed

The funny and peculiar facts of life
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The Independent Culture

In the age of Google and its rivals in the booming search business, printed reference books need to show off their special qualities like hopeful swains or damsels at a dating service. Beauty, Wisdom, Competence and Personality (GSOH preferred) should be present, at least singly, preferably together. For heavyweight elegance and far-reaching authority combined, the flagship titles on Dorling Kindersley's list remain difficult to beat. This year, Universe (foreword by Martin Rees, £30) spectacularly extends DK's run of pictorial encyclopedias into outer space, with solid text and superb design.

Back on this problematic planet, R G Grant's global guide to Battle, from Marathon in 490C to Manhattan on 11 September 2001 (DK, £25), comprehensively shows why humankind has to gaze at the stars for glimpses of a better world. After all that bloody mayhem, deftly organised, the new edition of Tom Stevenson's sumptuous Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia (DK, £35) may persuade you of the virtues of human culture. As will How Cool Stuff Works (DK, £19.99), perhaps aimed at the younger reader but still an invaluable illustrated guide for every technophile (and, even more, technophobe) to the innards of computers, aircraft, mobiles, MP3s, microwaves, antibiotics, and so irresistibly on.

You will still find factual authority at its most austere, unyielding and Darcy-like in Whitaker's Almanack 2006 (A&C Black, 40): a must-have for the serious seeker after unimpeachable data on politics, law, the professions, civil society and global affairs. The same outfit lets its hair down a little for a junior version, assisted by fact-book supremo Russell Ash and a plethora of cute photographs: Whitaker's World of Facts (A&C Black, £19.99). Even the miniaturised version, Whitaker's Alamanack Pocket Reference 2006 (A&C Black, £6.99), offers a handy alternative to an old favourite: The Economist Pocket World in Figures (Profile, £10.99).

In this company, the much-advertised newcomer Schott's Alamanac 2006 (Bloomsbury, £15) seems to me to be finding its feet. Pitched sometimes uneasily between Wisdom and Personality, Schott makes a pleasant and diverting browse but feels wayward in tone and range, with its September press date more conspicuous than Whitaker's. So the books and arts section begins with Elfriede Jelinek, Nobel laureate 2004, and not a word on Harold Pinter. Its proofing could do with a rethink as well. J R R Tolkein? Peter Mandleson? That said, the sudden lurches between fancy-that trivia and serious data - as a guide to coloured wristbands segues into UK population statistics - arguably captures something distinctive about the way we now relate to an expanding universe of facts.

In the past few years, Penguin has published first-rate guides to British cultural landmarks - by Simon Jenkins and Mark Fisher - that gloriously married authority with individuality. Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood carry on this line with their addictive The Lore of the Land (Penguin, £30): a 900-page county-by-county gazetteer of English folklore and the legends of ghosts, witches, heroes, fairies and other occult phenomena that sustain it. If you dread the Tescofication of this country, here is the ideal antidote.

As for the GSOH reference titles that aim to charm us with the abundance of their gags and the sparkle of their personality, most sound like galumphing bores after just a page or two. I make an exception for two out of an avalanche of jokey language titles. Carl Newbrook's Ducks in a Row (Short Books, £9.99), a painfully astute guide to "Office English", does just what it says on the tin, drilling down into the coal face of the 9-5 interface to punch its weight, go the extra mile and think outside the box. Give it to the David Brent in your life.

And The Meaning of Tingo by Adam Jacot de Boinod (Penguin, £10) wittily gathers words from 280 tongues with no English equivalent. In your office you no doubt endure a Radfahrer or two (German; one who flatters superiors and browbeats subordinates), who will zealously pursue employees who fucha (Polish; to use company time for one's own purposes) and prefers to zhengquan-duoli (Chinese; to jockey for power and profit) all the time rather than sit chatting about what they saw last night on the dinnilos-dicking-muktar (Romany; television or "fool's looking box").

What we see too much of on the dinnilos-dicking-muktar is celebrity trash, seeping out from its enclaves to colonise every field of cultural activity. At last, the fightback has begun, with its shining spearhead The Dictionary of National Celebrity (Weidenfeld, £9.99) by Hermione Eyre and the late scholar-satirist,William Donaldson. If I start quoting these cyanide-dipped thumbnail sketches I may never stop, from Paris Hilton ("looks like a shivering whippet dipped in bleach") and Carole Caplin ("the spirit of Rasputin trapped in the body of a Pan's People performer") to Stephen Fry ("The stupid person's idea of a clever person"). On the whole, it's so gratifyingly sharp that one soon forgives the curious conviction that Ben Elton is the historian G R Elton's son.

That's the sort of planted howler found all the way through Craig Brown's 1966 and All That (Hodder, £10): his 20th-century update of Sellar & Yeatman's spoof history, from the first ever Labour prime minister, Ronald MacDonald, to the brand new millennium of Cruel Britannia, starring Loin and Mole Gargler of Oasis: "They swore, didn't shave, wore old clothes and burped. They were hailed as a breath of fresh air." In any other season, Brown's would count as the funniest book of the year.

In 2005, Eyre & Donaldson stay ahead by a red nose, if only because they delight with their surreal digressions, surprise by having kind words for a (very) few celebs, and keep their wits about them even when they do. So listening to Devonian soul diva Joss Stone is "like hearing Tess of the D'Urbervilles rapping".