Thursday, February 22, 2018

Have You Tried Reading An Encyclopedia Of Literature?

Could one book properly catalog, identify, and detail all that makes up literature?

Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature attempts to do just that.  It’s book of over 1250 pages that captures more than 10,000 entries.  The entries cover names of authors, names of books, literary terms, topics from all eras, spanning all over the world, literary characters, and all things reflective of the diversity of literature through the ages.

Part-dictionary, part-encyclopedia, this thick tome provides coverage of all literary forms and genres, including novels, poems, essays, plays and literary criticism.  It presents facts and insights about a wide variety of literature, including science fiction, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction, children’s literature and other forms of literature.

The book goes in-depth in its coverage, which includes:

·         Listings of literary landmarks, journals, prizes, and characters.
·         Plot summaries and dates of publication of major literary works.
·         Definitions, spellings, pronunciations, and the etymologies of literary terms.
·         Biographical sketches of authors, literary scholars, and literary theorists.

The copy of this edition that I came across at a used book store is from 1995 – nearly a quarter-century ago.  Clearly a lot more can be added and updated.  Perhaps some of it would be edited out, as time may obscure some of the entries.  But this book manages to tie the long ago past with the recent present, linking the Tales of the Genji or Wuthering Heights with Satanic Verses and 1984.  It connects Toni Morrison to Dante Alightes and it combines the mythological and folklore figures like Agamemnon with fictional characters such as Sam Spade or Heathcliff.  It also keeps us informed of literary styles and movements, such as Baroque and Transcendentalism and of literary terms like accentual verse, haiku, and intertextuality.

The book is merely alphabetized and not broken down into categories, time periods or any clearly defined category, which presents an overwhelming feeling for the reader to get a clear grasp of the literary universe.  But it does allow for instant, random learning of all things literature.  One minute you may read of Galt, a prolific Scottish novelist admired for his depiction of country life in the 1820’s and 1830’s, and the next moment your eyes are on text about interior monologue, which the book defines as: “A usually extended representation in monologue of a fictional character’s sequence of thought and feeling.”

Because it’s not ordered information – covering thousands of years, scores of nations, and mixing up authors with terms, books with movements, the book becomes more trivial than resourceful.  It’s for the ADHD-imparted pursuer of knowledge.  It’s fine if you need to look something up but to comb through it is challenging.  Still, I don’t deny the book’s utility and value, for it’s a wonderful effort out to compile a lot of interesting information.

Where else will you find a listing for a scholar like Samuel Johnson or Harold Bloom interspersed with a listing about The Kenyon Review, Hugo Award, and Zola?  Students, readers, writers, editors, and anyone interested in books will embrace this book even if they become frustrated by its unorganized, dense representation of literature.

The book combines two powerhouses – Merriam-Webster, Inc., founded in 1831 by the man who wrote the dictionary, Noah Webster, and Encyclopedia Brittanica, which, since 1768 became the oldest continuously published reference work in the English language.

I leave you with the lasting words of the book’s preface, written by the editor, Kathleen Kuiper:

“It is through the naming of objects, the telling of stories, and the singing of songs that we know ourselves and others.  Whether trickster tales or nursery rhymes are the first things we remember hearing, we have learned how to live our lives by means of narrative – the stories our mothers told us, the books our brothers and sisters read to us (and the volumes we chose to read to them), the holy books and textbooks we memorized as children and still recall with perfect clarity.  By these means we develop -- however weakly or strongly – our moral natures; we discover who we are and who we are not, what we would give anything to be and precisely what we would be willing to sacrifice to gain that prize.  We need stories and songs to live fully.

“Reference books are one of the most efficient means we have organizing what we know.  The most useful reference book on literature will help us find biographical data on the greatest writers of all places and all periods and on less-well-known contemporary writers, too.  It will remind us of the plots of favorite folktales as well as inform us of the significance of an epic novel.  It will introduce us to major literary characters, explain the meaning of a literary term, and describe the significance of a literary style or movement.  It will permit us to quickly review a mode of criticism and tell us precisely what the adjectival form of an author’s name is meant to convey.  If, in addition, it includes an etymology and gives us a clue about how to pronounce the subject at hand, then we have a satisfying book, a true companion.”

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource."

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