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ROCK: A turn up for the books

At 4,991 pages, it's the biggest pop book ever. But Tim de Lisle still finds holes in Guinness's record-breaking book of records
THE POSTMAN delivers a cardboard box. It could contain a hi-fi, 100 CDs, or a self-assembly shelf unit from Ikea. In fact, it contains a book.

When The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music first appeared, it ran to four volumes and was hailed by the Times as "a work of almost frightening completeness". Exactly three years later, here is the second edition, in six volumes. Having made the opposition look small, Guinness has now dwarfed itself. The second edition has 50 per cent more words than the first. The index alone occupies 240 pages. If nothing else, the book should make The Guinness Book of Records.

These are not empty statistics. The first duty of an encyclopedia is to be encyclopedic. To have amassed this much material on a subject as fast-moving and far-spreading as pop is a hell of an achievement. And hell is what the editor, Colin Larkin, has gone through to achieve it. He has mortgaged his house, sacrificed his marriage and, between editions, lost a son to leukaemia - through no fault of the book's, but it can't have made the task any easier.

The book is not just huge: it's handsome, and human. Larkin, a graphic designer, has combined new technology (AppleMac, Quark, Microsoft Word) with an old typeface (Baskerville, designed c 1750) to give a rare elegance. And he has allowed his 100-odd writers to express opinions, even prejudices - pro-Lennon, the book's dedicatee; anti-McCartney, whose masterpiece, "Yesterday", is dismissed as "sentimental".

The updating is unusually wholehearted. There are entries for Portishead and Tricky, Liz Phair and Towering Inferno; the index lists 100 people whose names begin with DJ. The only obvious failures in this area are Sheryl Crow, who is nowhere to be seen, and Prince, whose entry stops in 1991. Perhaps the idea of someone adopting a name from outside the alphabet is more than an encyclopedist can take.

As usual in pop, it's better to be new than obscure. Mary Margaret O'Hara, the thrilling balladeer whose only album is Miss America (1988), doesn't get an entry and the index calls her O'Hara, Mary, a very different thing. But she fares better than the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the gospel veterans who are coming here next week. Some books confuse them with the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Guinness avoids the trap by mentioning neither of them.

Well, even in 4,991 pages, you can't include everyone. But it would be easier if you didn't award entries to musicals, both stage and screen, on top of the entries on their authors. Sondheim's Passion gets 34 lines; The Hunting of the Snark even more. And not just musicals: the film Union City gets 15 lines, because Debbie Harry acted in it. This is crazy.

Among the world records the book has a shot at is the one for misprints. Most are one-letter affairs (Chrissie Brinkley, etc) or failures of cross- referencing: the Foo Fighters are in the "quick reference guide" at the back but not the main text. A few are more serious. In Brian Eno's entry, a long paragraph appears twice. The second version is updated, but adds two misprints and still fails to record Eno's effect on U2, converting them from earnestness to gleeful irony.

Cliches are as unavoidable as slips of the pen, but again, do there have to be so many? The Grateful Dead are "enigmatic and mercurial". Roxy Music left "a substantial body of work whose sheer diversity contributed significantly to the multifarious musical styles that followed in their wake". There are even botched cliches: "Heralding from a stage family, Minogue ..."

If the problem isn't cliches, it's jargon. Boz Scaggs "forged an exemplary soul / rock direction" in the 1970s. The entry on Neil Young forges such a dismal sense / language direction, it should be photocopied and issued to fourth forms as part of Gillian Shephard's new campaign. Among other gems, it assures us that "Mirror Ball is one of the most necessary albums he has recorded". If the book contains a sentence that sings, I haven't found it yet.

Still, the second duty of an encyclopedia is to get its facts right and Guinness does. The only howler to emerge so far is in the (bafflingly long) entry on the one-off charity supergroup The Crowd, where "You'll Never Walk Alone" is credited to Rodgers and Hart, instead of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The one conspicuous inaccuracy is the title. The book says very little about music. It's really the Guinness Encyclopedia of Singers, Bands, Musicals and Chart Positions - as if the charts weren't covered by its sister books. Whether a song reached No 1 or No 20 is nothing to whether it has endured, and why. But maybe they're leaving that for the third edition.

! Published tomorrow (Guinness, pounds 295).