The best of 2004: reference books reviewed

Fighting talk in the year of chavs
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The Independent Culture

In Mike Leigh's tragically funny TV play about unhappy campers, Nuts in May, the hippy-drippy Candice-Marie asks her pompous nerd of a husband, Keith, what he's reading in their tent. "The Guinness Book of Records," he grunts. Christmas is the perfect time to indulge your, or someone's, Inner Keith.

In Mike Leigh's tragically funny TV play about unhappy campers, Nuts in May, the hippy-drippy Candice-Marie asks her pompous nerd of a husband, Keith, what he's reading in their tent. "The Guinness Book of Records," he grunts. Christmas is the perfect time to indulge your, or someone's, Inner Keith.

Junior Keiths - or simply pub-quiz devotees - would do well to lay off the Guinness (too gimmick-driven now) and choose Russell Ash's Top Ten of Everything (Dorling Kindersley, £12.99) for a trusty fix of superlative trivia, from the nearest galaxy to Earth (Sagittarius Dwarf) to the most popular sport in Hollywood movies (boxing, with 204 hits). Dorling Kindersley has led a publishers' fightback against Google's disorderly regiments of data, commissioning reference works that offer fine design and illustration as well as authoritative texts. After Animal a couple of years ago, it has now rounded up the rest of the natural world into Human (ed. Robert Winston, £30) and Plant (ed. Janet Marinelli, £30): two master-classes in the complex orchestration of word, image and layout.

Over in the politely cut-throat world of popular lexicography, Bloomsbury makes a killing with the second edition of the Bloomsbury English Dictionary (edited by Kathy Rooney, £30). Radiantly clear and comprehensive, it supplies thumbnail definitions of places and people as well as words. With Bloomsbury, the undisputed word of the year, "chav", is followed by Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. Elsewhere, Profile followed up Eats, Shoots & Leaves with a charming if scrappy spelling miscellany by Vivian Cook: Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary (£9.99). No patch of English breeds such a strange crop of cliché, neologism and euphemism as the soccer stadium. In a wickedly deadpan A-Z of argot, Football Lexicon by Leigh & Woodhouse (Faber/ Oleander, £9.99), the lads show clinical finishing and give 200 per cent to deliver a giant-killing result in the Group of Death of the stocking-filler market.

Off the pitch, and on the road, three sumptuous handbooks promise magic - and even mystery - to the cultural tourist. In Britain's Best Museums and Galleries (Allen Lane, £30), former arts minister Mark Fisher visits, rates and readably describes 350 collections from the grand to the tiny; the V& A to the Welsh Slate Museum. Equally atttractive in its writing and design is Lydia Greeves's magnificent History and Landscape (National Trust, £30): a guide to NT properties that builds into a mosiac history of Britain.

Post-punk icon Julian Cope first indulged his passion for prehistoric monuments with The Modern Antiquarian. Now, in The Megalithic European (Element, £35), he roams over 300 sites beyond Britain, from Sweden to Sicily, Cork to Corsica, tracing the archaeology and folklore behind each stash of sacred stones. This is a masterwork of eccentric erudition. Give it to your favourite chav.

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