Take the third edition of David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia, for example (pounds 35). Nearly 1200 pages on everything from Aachen to zygote, plus another 100 of ready reference at the back. If I ever need to be reminded of the names of the nematode worms that cause filariasis I shall be extremely grateful to have this work on my shelves, but in order to make room for such factual nuggets as this, it seems to have squeezed all the peripheral goodness.
There were three things above all others that I wanted to know last week: who is the King of Belgium; what sort of a chap was Francis Beaufort, and was Lady Godiva fact or fiction. I looked up "Belgium" and quickly learnt how many provinces it is divided into, what percentage of Belgians are Walloons, how many members there are in its senate and all the usual historical and geographical stuff, but I had to turn to the ready-reference pages to find the name of their king. Oddly enough the late Albert I merits an entry of his own, but the present King Albert II does not. Francis Beaufort also lacks an entry and has only the briefest of mentions under "Beaufort Scale". Lady Godiva merits four lines, which mention that "according to tradition" she rode naked through Coventry to persuade her husband Leofric not to levy a tax on the townsfolk.
The new centenary edition of Chambers Biographical Dictionary (pounds 40) also underperforms on these test items. There is again no entry for Albert II, though the entry for Albert I mentions that he died in 1934 and was succeeded by Leopold III, and that for Leopold III informs us that he abdicated in 1951 in favour of Baudouin I, whose entry says that he died in 1993 but mentions no successor. I wondered if this was only a dictionary of the dead, but just a few pages before Baudouin I spotted Julian Barnes, listed as the author of A History of the World in 10 Chapters (presumably the expurgated edition of the usual 1012 -chapter work).
Barnes and Belgians apart, Chambers is a useful volume for basic information. Beaufort and Godiva merit 12 lines each, which tell us that Beaufort joined the navy aged 13 and was severely wounded near Malaga, and that Peeping Tom only entered the Godiva legend long after its first telling.
So what should these worthy volumes have told us about the Lady and the Admiral? It would have added a little meat to the Beaufort story if his Malaga injuries had been listed as 13 musket shots and three cutlass wounds, and it would have been informative to tell us that those pictures of Godiva riding side-saddle are quite wrong, because that style was only introduced much later by Anne of Bohemia. I learnt all that from the Dictionary of National Biography, which also mentions that Godiva was no Lady as that title did not belong "to her degree in the usage of her time." While it is unfair to compare a one-volume work with the 126 volumes of the DNB, little snippets such as these are too good to omit.
In contrast to the sober, academic style of Cambridge and Chambers, the Guinness Book of Knowledge (pounds 20) is full of pictures, charts and coloured panels. Its appearance reflects its modern outlook: there are 30 pages on history, but otherwise its concern is the world now. Albert II gets a mention, but not any earlier Belgian king. Science sections are particularly strong, and if you want to know which countries have the most and least people per car, or how many cinemas there are in China, this book will tell you. It has the longest list of phobias I have ever seen.
While the Book of Knowledge is a welcome addition to the reference book market, the Guinness Book of Records (pounds 17) seems to have deteriorated recently. I dimly remember learning in an old edition that the first flight by the Wrights covered a distance shorter than the wing-span of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. It was full of things like that, but now it looks more like a print-out from a computerised list of records.
Fortunately, where the Guinness Book of Records lets us down as a source of odd information, we have Russell Ash's Top Ten of Everything (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 12.99) ready to take its place. With its lists of everything from Species of Fish Most Caught Worldwide to Winners of the "Oddest Titles at the Frankfurt Book Fair" Competition, the top ten goldfish names in the UK (headed by Jaws), and Words Most Used by Shakespeare, this is a browser's delight and an essential adjunct to more worthy encyclopedias.
Finally, two titles that never seem to change: Pears Cyclopaedia (Penguin, pounds 15.99) is celebrating its centenary, while Whitaker's Almanack (pounds 35) is 30 years older. Pears has a very old-fashioned look, with each edition appearing to be a grudging update of the previous one. It contains everything you might need to complete a general-knowledge crossword - unless it asks you the name of the king of Belgium. Poor old Albert is not kingly enough to appear among Prominent People. "Belgium" may be found in the Gazeteer, but not the index.
Whitaker's Almanack remains in a class of its own. Utterly quirky, it offers as complete a list as one could hope for of people and planets, institutions and constitutions, MPs and PMs, weather, sport, schools, taxation, and as good a summary of the past year's events as will be found anywhere. There is even a list of endangered species, including that most timid of creatures, the trembling sea-mat. As an Almanack of the present rather than distant past, it can be forgiven for saying nothing about Beaufort other than his scale, and ignoring Godiva, but it's the best of all on King Albert, giving his birthday as well as that of Donna Paola Ruffo di Calabria and their three offspring. Whitaker's is also thoroughly up to date - the only one of this batch to have caught up with the death of the Princess of Wales. Reading it is like dining in the company of an erudite and witty don, and letting him do all the talking. More fun than a mountain of databases.