Occasionally, if we are lucky during our bibliographical exploratory journey the universe may drop into our laps an extraordinary gem. Books which blow us a little closer to the stars. I am currently reading Jack Lynch’s You Could Look it Up (2016) published by Bloomsbury Press, which explores ‘The reference shelf from ancient Babylon to Wikipedia’. It sounds rather like a infinite uninhabited desert, full of dusty relics but it’s not. The structure of Lynch’s book is attention grabbing and bursting with humanity from the get go. He groups together two carefully selected reference ‘books’ in each of the twenty-four chapters, (in the process of discarding a good number of equally fascinating ones by his own admission) with a ‘half’ chapter between each. These half chapters explore themes such as ‘The Dictionary Gets its day in Court’, and ‘Ignorance, Pure Ignorance: Of Omissions, Ambiguities, and Plain Old Blunders.’ Some of the ‘books’ featured are in fact volumes of tablets depicting ancient laws (as brutal as you can imagine) and dictionaries or simply lists of words. Chapter twenty is ‘Modern Materia Medica’, where Henry Gray and Henry Vandyke Carter’s Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical (1858), aka Gray’s Anatomy (no it is not just a television show) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1952) appear together. It is followed by chapter twenty and a half; ‘Incomplete and Abandoned Projects’, which begins with, ‘In the back alleys of intellectual history are scattered the abandoned wrecks of would-be dictionaries and encyclopedias.’ I find myself compelled to share that never before has a non-fiction book driven me to bed at such an early hour for the sole purpose of reading, or to spontaneously write an unsolicited review in the wee hours. I am usually decidedly more inclined to fall asleep reading fiction or memoir.
What Lynch also offers is some shooting stars, some extra special words pulled back from long ago to make us weep from the sheer beauty of them. In chapter two ‘In the beginning was the word; The first dictionaries’, Lynch gives us Erya an ancient Chinese dictionary that dates back (unconfirmed) to around third century B.C.E.
Poetry or dictionary? You decide:
Explaining the Heaven
‘Round hollow and very blue, this is Heaven. In springtime, Heaven is blue; in summertime, bright; in autumn, clear, in wintertime, Heaven is wide up. These are the four seasons. In springtime, there is a greening sun-warmth; in summer, a reddish enlightening; in autumn a blank storing; and in winter a dark blossom. If all these expressions are harmonious, (the year) is called “jade candle.” The spring gives birth; the autumn grows the adult; in autumn the harvest is completed; and in winter there is a peaceful tranquility. If the harmony of the four seasons is thorough and correct, (the year) is called “illustrious wind.” If the sweet rain comes down to the right time, the many things are at their best, it is called “sweet spring.” This means luck.’
Luck it would seem is not so random and neither are great books. Heaven surrounds us; in the tendered garden and in our changing seasons, and from one bibliophile to any other, and on the reference shelf.