Professor Jack Lynch Pens Playful History of Reference Works

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Eighteenth-century English Lit scholar takes the drudgery out of "looking it up."

Jack Lynch is a professor of English at Rutgers University–Newark, specializing in 18th-century English literature and the history of the English language. He has been prolific since arriving at RU-N in 1998, publishing widely and serving in various roles, including Acting Senior Associate Dean for Faculty for the College of Arts and Sciences.

In addition to his scholarly monographs, he has authored several books for general audiences, including The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park and Samuel Johnson's Insults: A Compendium of Snubs, Sneers, Slights, and Effronteries from the Eighteenth-Century Master.

We caught up with him to discuss his latest work, You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia, a fun, wide-ranging history of reference books that has been hailed by critics at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews and other media outlets.

What inspired you to write this book?

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a sucker for dictionaries, encyclopedias—reference books of every sort. I’ve loved the way they try to capture an entire universe worth of learning and squeeze it into a single volume. Who has the nerve to tell the world what the entire language means, or to collect everything worth knowing? I know I’m not alone in enjoying reading old reference books for fun, even if it’s a really nerdy kind of fun.

The 50 reference books you write about are from what time-period range?

Pretty much every time period. I start with the Code of Hammurabi, which was written around 1754 BCE, and I end with Wikipedia, which is never more than a few microseconds old. Along the way I stop in ancient Greece and Rome, early Islam, the European Middle Ages, 18th-century Japan, and on and on.

That’s quite a lot of historical ground to cover, and part of the beauty of this book are the off-beat and esoteric choices. How did you go about making your selections? What were your main criteria?

I wish I could make it sound as if I had well-developed criteria. I started with a few works I know well, things that are part of my scholarly work: Samuel Johnson’s and Noah Webster’s dictionaries, the Encyclopédie and the Encyclopædia Britannica, and so on. But I wanted to write something that would amuse people who aren’t academics. I spent a few years reading the history of the reference genres, and trying to get a sense of the general outline of that history and the high points along the way. I could easily have written a book twice as long—in fact, I almost did; I had to cut the equivalent of about 200 pages, and it’s still a thick book [at 464 pages].

And what was the rationale for organizing the book the way you did—25 pairs of reference works with commentary interspersed throughout?

It’s not easy for people to think about dictionaries, encyclopedias, law codes, atlases, tables of logarithms, rule books, and so on. They’re all books that are meant to be consulted rather than read, and so while we’ve all used many of them, very few people have any sense of what makes one dictionary different from every other dictionary, or why this list of places is better than that list of places. So I thought that putting pairs of works in juxtaposition would give me the chance highlight what made each one interesting. And that led me to settle on the structure of 25 chapters, each of which looks at an exemplary pair of reference works. But when I settled on that I realized a lot of really interesting material wouldn’t fit anywhere, and so I ended up with 24 “half-chapters,” making brief digressions into the history of alphabetical order, the fate of door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen, and the habit of these books to be overlong, overdue, and over budget.

You also get personal and include a section on how you organize your own reference shelf. What’s your general strategy, and would you recommend this to others, or is this a deeply personal affair?

Even in the Internet age I have reference books all over the house, but I keep the most important ones in my study, where I do most of my writing. I never really thought about it consciously until I started writing this book, but I came to understand what principles had been guiding my thinking about where I kept my books. The lowest shelf over the computer contains the works I use almost every day: I can reach them without standing up. I can reach the two shelves above that by standing, and on them I keep the books I use maybe every few weeks. And on the very top shelf—which I can’t reach without dragging the stepping stool upstairs—are the ones I rarely use but can’t bear to part with.

Along those lines, what guilty—or not-so-guilty—pleasures do you yourself get from reference books, and from historicizing them?

A lot of the pleasure I got from this book was from discovering the most bizarre reference books, things I never dreamed would exist. Someone compiled a guide to Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich. There’s an Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. And who wouldn’t love a book with a presumptuous title like A Million of Facts, Connected with the Studies, Pursuits, and Interests of Mankind: Serving as a Common-place Book of Useful Reference on All Subjects of Research and Curiosity, published in 1839?

It’s one thing to become an expert of the literature of a particular place and time period. It’s quite another to tackle the history of the English language and literatures, as you’ve done from many angles. What makes you go there?

I’m most at home in 18th-century British literature, the subject of my scholarly books and articles, and I don’t pretend to be an expert in anything else—for that matter, I can claim real expertise on only a tiny little patch of 18th-century literature. But it’s healthy to remember that the subjects we study so intensely in graduate school and beyond are part of a much bigger picture. That sends me wandering, maybe stumbling, into areas in which I’m certainly no expert. I like to be reminded that there’s a whole world out there.

You’re known for being prolific, writing for both academic and general audiences. This book is meant for the latter. How do you see your academic and popular publications as connected? And what inspires you to write for popular, as well as academic, audiences?

Academics are trained to write for other academics, and our careers depend on our ability to write for other specialists in our fields. But I’ve always thought professors should be willing to communicate with the wider world. It’s good for the wider world, and, just as important, it’s good for the professors to think about how to present their interests to a larger audience.

Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us.

It was my pleasure.