WHEN I was writing my first book reports, my mother could usually be relied upon to provide the correct spelling of a difficult word. My father, who was as good a speller as my mother, was much more likely to direct me to the dictionary, in the hope that this would teach me self-reliance, research skills, or at least the principle of alphabetical order. Not knowing how a word is spelled does impair one's ability to locate it in a dictionary, but, as I soon realized, the whole point of ``research'' was to proceed by trial and error, testing possible spellings until the correct one was found. This was precisely the long-drawn-out process I had hoped to avoid by the more convenient method of asking the handy reference known as Mom.
Then there was the library reference section where my classmates and I congregated after school to compile our ``reports'' on - who can remember? The chief agricultural exports of Brazil? The history of the cotton gin? There were rows and rows of massive tomes to be hefted from shelves, copied from, and as often as not, uncomprehended. But there were also multivolume encyclopedias, atlases, almanacs - all brimming with information.
In those days, I gravitated toward ``Current Biography,'' where I - a teenaged girl with a budding interest in movie actors - could find little bios and surprisingly large photographs of important research topics like Albert Finney or Robert Redford. Not only movie actors, but any topic other than the one assigned seemed hard to resist. En route to the tedious old ``cotton gin,'' my eye could hardly miss the fully illustrated entry on ``costume'': the one that starts off with pictures of togas, followed by medieval gowns, on through bonnets, bustles, and shirtwaists.
Nowadays, the temptations of reference books are even stronger. Reading and writing about books for a living, I spend a lot of time looking things up. Silly as it may sound, I feel a sense of gratitude toward my reference books. Turning from a paragraph I'm trying to write in order to check a spelling in the dictionary, to find a synonym in the thesaurus, or to check a fact in some other book, is a welcome break, not unlike a visit with an old friend.
When it comes to dictionaries, I'm usually torn between the august ``Oxford English Dictionary'' (I have the compact version) and the ``American Heritage Dictionary'' (3rd edition), with its charming pictures. The OED has splendid etymological lore tracing the history of the words, but the ``American Heritage'' is useful because it includes all the latest slang and other modern jargon. The OED still bears the stamp of the British Empire, with words like cutcha, an Anglo-Indian term meaning of poor quality (the opposite of pucka). And when one tires of looking up words, it's always fun to turn to those charts, featured in many dictionaries, illustrating the Indo-European family of languages, and marvel over the relationships among Sanskrit, Italic, Celtic, Balto-Slavic, and so forth.
Sometimes, when I'm trying to write, it seems as if my vocabulary has walked out on me. On other occasions, it's not just a question of finding another word for ``interesting'' because I've already used it twice in two paragraphs, but a question of what word I mean in the first place.
In either of these situations, I take refuge in my thesaurus. Thesauruses come and go, some offering an alphabetical format. But none that I've seen provides the sheer wealth of synonyms, the subtle gradations among shades of meaning, to be found in ``Roget's International'' (mine happens to be the third edition). Take, for example, the word elegant. Going first to the index (which is, of course, alphabetical), I note that elegant appears under nine different listings, including grandiloquent, excellent, tasteful, beautiful, ornate, chaste, and sumptuous. So many shades of meaning for elegant! The trouble is, I was intending to look up enthralling in my quest for a stronger synonym for interesting, but was sidetracked by elegant along the way.
My relationships with literary reference books tend to be a little more contentious. I approach them with a critical eye, looking for omissions, misjudgments, and other flaws. But I usually end up enjoying their company after all.
One of the books that I consult most frequently is the fifth edition of ``The Oxford Companion to English Literature,'' edited by British novelist and critic Margaret Drabble. I reviewed this book when it came out several years ago. Now, as then, I appreciate the detailed, thoughtful descriptions of writers and their work. I continue to find Drabble's tastes congenial. But one of the flaws that bothered me on first examining the book remains a serious one: a sprinkling of factual errors, like incorrect birth dates, numbers of siblings (Jane Austen is identified as the 6th of 7 children, when she was the 7th of 8), and, worse yet, Anna Sewell's ``Black Beauty'' described as a mare instead of a stallion! If one can't trust a reference book, where is one to look? I usually try to check dubious-sounding facts in other reference books, but that can be like trying to find a word in the dictionary when you aren't sure of the spelling in the first place.
I had a different kind of negative first impression of another book that is also now one of my favorite reference works, the hefty 1413-page ``New Guide to Modern World Literature,'' by the British critic and poet Martin Seymour-Smith. This is a work of marvelous -
almost monstrous - erudition. Not only does Seymour-Smith cover almost every modern literature: African, Arabic, Finnish, Chinese, Belgian - even obscure ones like Kazakh and Tajik - but he also gives the impression of actually having read practically all of the writers he discusses.
What put me off initially was the vehemence of Seymour-Smith's opinions, ventilated on every page. I had visions of tribes of school children diligently copying down his trenchant, no-holds-barred verdicts along with his (generally accurate) facts to produce something like ``Muriel Spark was born in 1918. Her best book is `Momento Mori' (1959).'' And then, following Seymour-Smith, ``She lacks wisdom, emotional substance and all compassion, but the surface of her novels was until quite recently attractive.'' But, of course, it's the vigor and bite of such opinions that make this such an engaging book, sending one back to re-examine one's own reading and keeping the ``search'' in ``research.''