Friday, November 6, 2015

The Best Reference Books For Writers

Some books are just so impressive, so powerful, so important that you tend to overlook them.  Take The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fifth Edition, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Published in 2011, it updated an earlier edition from 2000.  It is one of the longest books in book publishing history.  It is a hardcover, 8x10 volume, filled with 2,084 pages, retailing for $60.  It contains so many words, terms, places, and names of things and people that it is more like a dictionary-plus or an encyclopedia-light.  It packs a lot into its tissue-thin pages that feature over 4,000 full-color images.

What’s interesting is what changes from one edition to the next.  One would think not much changes, but so much changes in a short period of time.  The recent edition added 10,000 new words and terms, and rewrote thousands of previously defined entries.  It’s almost too much to keep up with.

I quote from the book’s introduction in regards to what this book, with several hundred contributors, consultants, editors, researchers, and lexicographers had to tackle:

“What is the new material? Where does it all come from? From every walk of life and every corner of the universe.  For example, there are new words from technology (like crowdsourcing, quantum computer, and wikify) from medicine and physiology (like ghrelin, metabolome, and MRSA), from astronomy (like Big Rip, exoplanet, and plutino), from biology (like dulois, kermode, and xoloitzcuintli), from sports (like fakie, kiteboarding, and muay thai), and from cooking (like kunefe, sancocho, and zaatar).  And there are loads of informal and fun words like crop top, ginormous, ka-ching, yacay and wifty.  New senses include the virtual-reality sense of avatar, the Internet sense of cloud, the hamburger sense of slider, the protein sense of lip and stage.  This tide of new linguistic phenomena is in many ways a measure of our collective curiosity and creativity.  It represents who we are and where we are going. To not have access to this information is to be isolated in our own culture.”

There are a number of books that have become invaluable, reference guides and are true classics.  Strunk & White’s The Element’s of Style, Webster’s Dictionary, and Chicago Manual of Style come to mind.  Books like these could be duplicated by others, and indeed, there are many versions of dictionaries, books of language style, and usage, but these are the leaders.  They have a history of being the first and or best at what they do.

Every genre has its leading titles of the present and its classics from other eras, but there is a favoritism to certain oldies but goodies, starting with Shakespeare.  Some books are so timeless, so significant, so well done that new generations honor them by reading them cover to cover.

There are probably scores of books all writers should have access to, including The Guinness Book of World Records, The Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus, McGraw Hill’s Dictionary Book of Idioms, Bartlett’s Book of Quotations, The Almanac, and The Writers’ Market.  All of these books get revised and updated, sometimes annually, and even The Bible gets re-translated or re-formatted from time to time.

The digital era would seem perfect for the above-mentioned books.  Who needs to carry around a 10-pound book, right?  Wrong.  These are the exact books meant for print.  You hold them in your hands and you can discover so many things that you otherwise would never know existed. Great writers need great books – in print – close by at all times.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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