The Well-Referenced Knucklehead

There is a post to be written about the glory of classic, printed books, but I’m not the guy to do it. Sure, my house is filled with books, and probably always will be, but since I picked up my Kindle about three years ago, I admit I’ve become a convert to the e-reader. Of course there’s a certain pleasure to the feel, heft, smell, sound, and look of a “real” book, but my Kindle taught me that these pleasures, though undeniable, are not the central pleasure reading gives me. That pleasure, the gift of being caught up in a great story, or new insight into the world translates just fine for me on an e-reader. The rest, while a gift in itself, turns out to be less essential to a good read. For me, anyway. My friend, Barth, I’ll warrant, will directly be leading the charge against my heresy of this opening paragraph.*

One type of print book particularly threatened with extinction is the reference book. Yes, we were one of the families that had a set of encyclopedia, ensconced in the house even before I was born. I don’t remember if it was Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book, but I do remember where we kept those volumes: on the bottom shelves, within easy reach of a child’s hand. I would spend afternoons paging through those books. There began a lifelong (well, not yet, technically) love of reference volumes, the more arcane, the better. I learned to prowl library sales, flea markets, yard sales for obscure reference volumes, because to me they were endlessly fascinating. That you could hold in your hand (or hands, some of these things were massive) literally thousands of facts, of collected bits of knowledge, right there for the reaping, if you were just clever enough to know where to look, or industrious enough to keep digging; that was a beauty, power, and excitement all its own.

Every Christmas, I would give my father a brand new World Almanac and Book of Facts for the upcoming year, the new year – not yet even arrived! – printed on the cover like a magical glimpse into the future. An appendix contained reports of new information only 6-8 weeks old! Weeks, I say! I have no memory of the man actually cracking its spine. It didn’t matter, because the unspoken contract was that he would then hand me the World Almanac I’d given him the previous Christmas, which I would add to my growing Command Center in my bedroom. That volume was a reference-lover’s delight. The world, literally at your fingertips; sports, geography, nature, astronomy, history, all at my beck and call.

But it was my mother who held the jewel of the reference library. She kept a copy of the New York Public Library Desk Reference, and this was the Hyperion of the genre. At over ONE THOUSAND PAGES, this was the book that had it all. The idea was that in the days before Google, you could just call over to the reference desk at the NYC Public Library, and ask the librarian there to track down the factoid that was eluding you. This volume was designed for that librarian; it was the first, and usually last reference work he or she would consult to answer your question. Never mind state capitals, presidential facts, and mountains of the world; this bad boy was chock full of information you never even knew you never knew ever even existed (it’s OK, read it again, I’ll wait. Ready?). Weighing in at almost five pounds, it was pregnant with arcane knowledge: standards of etiquette the world over, rules of parlor games and obscure sports, recipes, forms of government, forms of address. It was o’erbrimming with Shakespearean characters and actors, royalty and deities from all over the globe. Packed with lists, crammed with charts, and embarrassed with illustrations of avenues, pathways, straits and estuaries both geographic and anatomical, this book was the most irresistible reference volume ever made. For the lover of books and knowledge, it was more like porn than… actual porn.

Sadly, the convenience of the internet has robbed many of the thrill of discovery from paging through a really great reference book. And it does seem silly to waste paper on volumes of information that are almost instantly out of date as they are printed. When information flows so much more quickly, cheaply, and greenly over the internet, cultivating paper reference books is foolish to the point of wasteful.

Ah, but the reference volume has not yet breathed its last, and there are two I’d like to recommend for every knucklehead’s home or school library. Unsurprisingly, one is about movies, one is about baseball. Both are filled with the last reason to turn to these volumes over the speed of the internet: great writing. These are books to be savored in the truest sense; turned to when one has some free time not just to learn, but to enjoy.

Here’s David Thomson writing about Lon Chaney in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film Alfred A. Knopf, 2010):

Chaney has the sweet, slow stealth of a magician who lingers at the moment of revealing a transformation and to leave everything to poetic imagination. There is not a screen performer who so illustrates the fascination for audiences of the promise and threat of metamorphosis. Why do we go to the cinema, sit in the dark before overwhelming fantasies that seem real? To share in theses plastic movements, to change our own lives, and to encourage the profound spiritual notion of our flexible identity. Hope breeds on the exercised fantasy.

Thomson’s Dictionary of Film has recently been updated into a fifth edition to include more contemporary entries, like one for Judd Apatow, but we (thankfully) have IMDB to keep us up with thumbnail biographies of emerging artists and their oeuvre. What we need Thomson for, and will always need Thomson and his peers for, is the love, poetry, imagination, and, yes, at times vitriol with which they flesh out the databases we consult. Thomson’s opinions are just that, opinions, but it’s remarkably fun to even argue with the man as you’re reading him. What are we teaching our children to read for, if not pleasure? Google can provide us with a chronology of the films of Richard Gere, but can it tell us he “has the warm affect of a wind tunnel at dawn, waiting for work, all sheen, inner curve, and posed emptiness”? Diving into this book, there is no telling what pearl you or your knucklehead are going to surface with.

If film reference books have been rendered obsolete by websites, how much more anachronistic must baseball reference volumes be? With statistics being generated even as we speak, can anything in print have any real value even before the ink is dry? Yes. Again, as always, it’s in the quality of the writing.

Bill James loves baseball. (David Thomson loves film as well, but with James, it’s easier to tell.) He will forever consider himself a student of the game, while being that guy in your corner bar that will talk baseball stories until half an hour after you push yourself away from him. Get your knucklehead a copy of The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (Free Press, 2003). He or she will immediately look up favorite players, and old famous names like Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams. But that’s where the fun only begins. Start to stroll through the thousand pages of this tome – flip to almost any page, really – and there are an assortment of characters waiting to make your acquaintance. In just the section on first base alone, your kid will meet Moose Skowron, Piano Legs Hickman, and Dirty Jack Doyle (or Dashing Jack, depending on whether he was playing on your team, or against you, I suppose). James digs up ballplayers you need to know about, and Doyle, a 19th-century ballplayer, is introduced to us with this story:

Early in his career, when he was a catcher, he was once reprimanded by the National League for sticking pebbles in the batter’s shoes while they were hitting. When the batter leaned forward on his toes Doyle would drop a pebble in the back on his shoe. The batter wouldn’t even feel it at the time, but then later, when he was trying to run, he would discover that there was a rock in his shoe.

How do you not love a guy like Jack Doyle? How do you not love a guy like Bill James for breathing life into a character like this? It’s not just that James is able to unearth these guys, but the quality of writing is what keeps you thumbing through this past your bedtime. Consider what Bill James has to say about Hal Chase, an early 20th-century ballplayer who spent a career under a cloud of suspicion for cheating, ultimately expelled from the game, but flourishing until then:

There is an evil, a smallness, lust, and greed that lives inside each of us. The secret of Hal Chase, I believe, was that he was able to reach out and embrace that evil. And he had so much class, don’t you see? He was a man of such dignity and bearing, such wit, charm, and grace, that he made you feel that it was alright to have that in you. It’s OK; it’s just the way we are. We’re all professionals, aren’t we? We’re in this game to make a living, aren’t we?

That’s James writing about life, not just baseball. That’s what makes the man, not just the work, worth reading.

I still love reading on my Kindle. I use the internet at least as much as anyone else my age. I don’t collect reference works so much anymore. But there will always be room on my shelf for these books. Always.

And in the bathroom? Jessica Kerwin Jenkins’ Encyclopedia of the Exquisite. But that’s another post.


*Yes, you’ve guessed it. This is my passive/aggressive way of testing my friends to see if they read my blog, like they say they do. I am a small, small petty little man.

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2 Responses to The Well-Referenced Knucklehead

  1. Barth Keck says:

    OK, so I actually read your post! Well done, as always, sir! You (and maybe your readers) might find this little op-ed from a few years ago of interest:

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