BOOKS & ARTS
In Praise of Reference-Book Authors
By DONALD ALTSCHILLER
IN AN UPPER WES T SIDE Manhattan apart- ment reportedly bursting with books, file folders, news clippings, and index cards, Joseph Nathan Kane spent several decades
compiling some of the most widely used refer-
ence works in publishing history. In 1933, the
H. W. Wilson Company published his first
book, Famous First Facts. Containing about
3,000 entries describing first discoveries, inven-
tions, and other landmark events, this 757-page
volume elicited the following enthusiastic com-
ment in a New York Times review: “It was surely
a happy inspiration that set Joseph Nathan
Kane at the task of producing so intriguing a
volume, and a dogged resolution of almost su-
perhuman force that kept him at work so inces-
santly grilling until it was finished.”
More than 75 years later, this work is now in
its sixth edition, and after Kane died in 2002,
it was edited by Steven Angovin (now also de-
ceased) and his wife, Janet Podell.
REFERENCE WORKS are often partially defined as books that are consulted and not read, and their history long predates the admirable toils of Kane
and Pearlroth. Dictionaries, the most popular
reference works, have presented daunting challenges to the very select group of remarkable
scholars and researchers who have embarked on
this lexical adventure.
In 1755, Samuel Johnson solely compiled A
Dictionary of the English Language, the first reliable and comprehensive dictionary of the language. He expected this mammoth project to
last almost three years, but it took him nearly a
decade to collect and edit the 42,000 entries.
The publication of that dictionary revolutionized the field of lexicography. Almost 75 years
later, Noah Webster labored for a quarter of a
century to create An American Dictionary of the
English Language, which earned linguistic respect
for residents of the former British colonies. Although James Murray, the brilliant polymath who
helped create The Oxford English Dictionary, didn’t
attain eponymous status for his massive work, the
OED is the pre-eminent dictionary, which established lexicographical standards.
The late 19th century seemed to mark the
heyday of reference works by a single author.
Published in 1870, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase
and Fable was praised by a British newspaper for
offering “the rare attraction in a book of reference of being thoroughly readable.” The Rev.
Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, a British schoolmaster
and author, collected numerous phrases and sayings—some often left out of other works—and
thus educated many readers, who may or may not
have attended college, about both uncommon and
unknown literary allusions. The phrase “killed by
kindness,” for example, is reportedly derived from
the legend that Draco, a popular Athenian legislator, met his death in 590 BC after being smothered by cloaks thrown by admiring spectators.
In 1891, the legal scholar Henry Campbell
Black researched and wrote A Dictionary of
Law. Now called Black’s Law Dictionary, this
century-old work has
been updated and revised
several times and still re-
mains the standard legal