(The dryest document I could find on short notice, courtesy the Internet Archive.)

Dear Pigeon Pops,

I love reference books and have a lot of them. My favorites are anything by Eric Partridge and anything from Facts on File. Partridge was a great lexicographer of popular language and extremely chatty in his entries. A Dictionary of Catch Phrases is so good. Here’s one entry.

when I was in Patagonia…! ’Commander A.B. Campbell was one of the regulars on BBC radio’s Brain’s Trust, but it was on an earlier version of the programme, called Any Questions, that he came up with his famous phrase. Donald McCollough, the chairman, said: ‘Mr Edwards of Balham wants to know if the members of the Brains Trust agree with the practice of sending missionaries to foreign lands.’ C.E.M. Joad and Julian Huxley gave their answers and then Campbell began, ‘Well, when I was in Patagonia…’

In a book which uses the phrase as its title, Campbell recalled: ‘I got no further, for Joad burst into a roar of laughter and the other members of the session joined in. For some time the feature was held up while the hilarity spent itself. For the life of me I could not see the joke…I got hundreds of letters and it cost me a small fortune in stamps…Even today (1951), years after, I can raise a laugh if I am on a public platform and make an allusion to it.’

There’s another book I’ve been enjoying lately. It’s called The Dictionary of Historic Documents. It’s by George C. Kohn, who is also the author of:

  • Encyclopedia of Plagues and Pestilence

  • Dictionary of Wars

  • A Concise Dictionary of Wars

  • Dictionary of Culprits and Criminals

Which makes me think of the editor at Facts on File calling Mr. Kohn up and going, “George, you got any dictionaries for me?”

“Well, Sam, I was thinking culprits.”

“George, you rogue, you’ve done it again.”

The entire set of Facts on File reference works (there are hundreds) is school-library-bait, and they tend to be clunky in execution. Then again, someone has to publish a book called Gaseous Matter. Today, Facts on File has been rolled up by private equity into some vast thing called Infobase Publishing, which also handles The World Almanac, and Chelsea House, which publishes books like “Tanks” and “The Mayflower Adventure” that my children used to bring home from school. Imagine the pitch meetings.

(Two people pass in the hall.)

Person 1: Tanks?

Person 2: Sure.

I find the giant information vendors—Infobase, ProQuest, Pearson, JSTOR, Thomson, Elsevier—extremely fascinating entitities. They’re deciding what to do with the world’s information right now, as we sleep.

Dictionary of Historic Documents : (Revised Edition).

Author: George Childs Kohn
Publisher: New York : Infobase Pub., 2003.
Edition/Format: eBook : Document : English
Provides basic factual information about more than 2,400 significant documents in world history. Included are key acts, constitutions, proclamations, treaties, bills, laws, agreements, and speeches, among others, from ancient codes, such as Hammurabi's Code, to modern agreements and speeches, such as the Kyoto Protocol or President George W. Bush's “Freedom and Fear Are at War” speech.

Source: WorldCat.

For example—

Draco, Laws of (Draconian Code) — Legendary Greek constitution, alleged to be the first written Athenian laws for the people (previously, the unwritten laws had been known only to the nobles). Publicized about 621 B.C., they were apparently written by an Athenian named Draco, an archon (chief magistrate) and noble elected to codify the unwritten laws of state for the benefit of the citizenry, which had become angered over unjust judicial decisions by the ruling and demanded a written code of laws. Draco's laws enfranchised the hoplites (lower-class foot soldiers), secured more legal justice for the people, and decreed most criminal of offenses punishable by death. This harshness led to the saying that the laws were written in blood, not ink, and made the word “draconian” synonymous with unmerciful.

And just to the left of that is

Douglass's “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Speech — Eloquent speech delivered on July 5, 1852, before the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York, by Frederick Douglass….

Of course the whole speech is on Wikipedia now. (My other favorite along these lines is “A Chinese View of the Statue of Liberty” by Saum Song Bo, written when they were raising money for the Statue.)

Is this book boring? It’s incredibly boring. No pictures either. Nonetheless it’s great to have a big book that just lists documents in alphabetical order. What a concept! Just documents! Nothing else! No literary canon or artworks, just charters and agreements and Napoleonic codes.

I miss alphabetical order. The alphabet is a great serendipitous blender. Everything is so searchable now you just don’t get the accidental juxtapositions like you used to, like Draconian law sitting, thousands of years before, next to American slavery. We have so much context.

I have a ton of other thoughts but it’s late, and we have time. Plus I have to give a two-hour seminar on Wiki structuring tomorrow. Also something is wrong with my keyboard and it keeps it inserting plus signs. ++++ There, really, I didn’t do that. So let’s call it, and try more later.

Your friend,