Paper reference library
September 19, 2017 5:53 AM   Subscribe

I want to own a series of good reference texts for my home that I can browse and with which to edify myself. Right now, I am most interested in learning about geography, but I am open to suggestions on any reference texts that are important to have in a home library.

I own a copy of the two volume OED with the magnifying glass and tiny print, a copy of Home Comforts, and three books about the Beatles. That is the extent of my non-fiction home reference collection. Oh, and cookbooks are covered. I have a lot of those.

I am most interested in owning an atlas right now, but any really must-have reference book suggestions are welcome. I am happy to own textbooks, if they are good.
posted by sockermom to Education (22 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I always loved the readers digest home repair book.
You might like the Merck Manual for medical issues.
posted by SyraCarol at 6:17 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you like the OED, you will probably enjoy The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, which in addition to being a good reference, is eminently browsable.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:22 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Dorling Kindersley (DK) Ultimate Visual Dictionary.
posted by Chitownfats at 6:30 AM on September 19, 2017

Seconding The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (you can get the Concise version if it's more readily available—I have both, and as far as I can tell they're pretty much the same); it's the only usage manual worth having, because it presents the linguistic facts, tells you the arguments for and against, and lets you make up your own mind.

On atlases, if you're serious about them you want the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World—nothing else comes close. Yes, it's pricey, but you can get a used copy, or (if you don't care about the latest borders and name changes) an earlier edition. It's a joy to use and a beautiful book.

For history, I highly recommend the Encyclopedia of World History (known to its friends as the Langer Encyclopedia). I can't begin to describe my joy forty years ago when I discovered such a thing existed: a year-by-year, region-by-region description of everything that ever happened (with a good index and handy dynastic tables). I still have the beat-up copy I got then, but the one I use (nearly every day) is the sixth edition (which that link takes you to).
posted by languagehat at 6:39 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is very browsable and full of cultural and historical information that would otherwise require a wide range of more specialist reference books to cover.
posted by protorp at 6:54 AM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Our most used reference books are field guides in the Peterson and Audubon series: birds, insects, wildlife, wildflowers, trees, etc. We also have guides to mushrooms, medicinal and edible plants, and weeds. I like drawings and paintings better than photos for many subjects. Since these can be expensive and very old ones, especially for plants, will have obsolete scientific names, it's probably a good idea to start small with one subject and expand to follow interests. Smaller, local guides are also useful and sometimes easier to use. I like to pencil in the date and location next to the entry when I identify a new plant or animal so the books become a sort of journal.
posted by Botanizer at 7:18 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

You can pick up an Encyclopedia for much less than they used to cost. Last print edition of the Britannica was 2010, and much of the knowledge will be accurate for some time. I used to enjoy browsing a paper encyclopedia.
posted by theora55 at 7:23 AM on September 19, 2017

I like Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia for information on literature.
posted by FencingGal at 7:26 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Pear's Cyclopaedia is full of an amazing variety of information. Some of it's specific to Britain, but a lot of it is international. Looks like there's an "International Edition" too. The 2017-2018 edition isn't out yet but, after 125 years of publishing, that's going to be the final one.
posted by fabius at 7:44 AM on September 19, 2017

The futurist Kevin Kelly does a pretty good job articulating here why the Times Atlas of the World is probably the best for home use.

Personal experience: My last three years in the Navy I was assigned to the agency that makes almost all of the maps and other GIS products for the military, and there was always a copy or two of this atlas in the watch station where we processed and distributed worldwide navigation warnings. They got used a lot. Despite my pleas to recycle, civil service bosses threw these beautiful books in the trash when the newest edition came out. One of them somehow jumped from the dumpster onto my bookcase at home, and I don't feel bad at all.

Here is KK again with a description of the best road atlases when you are ready to branch out.
posted by seasparrow at 8:10 AM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

There is a lot of fascinating stuff in zamboni's links above. Wow.

For atlases, it'd be good to have a detailed atlas of your local area. Obviously this will depend on where you are - you can ask for a recommendation from a local historical society. Even if you just end up with a Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer, it'll be helpful.

A Rand McNally road atlas is pretty classic. Not great for a library, but I keep one in the car.

If you have any interest in the Greek historians, the Landmark series will sate your desire for atlases while also being an authoritative edition of the text.

Arend Lijphart's Patterns of Democracy is the best textbook for comparative electoral and party politics.

The ESPN College Football Encyclopedia is the heftiest reference book I own. It's now a dozen years out of date, but there's still a load of good information. It's a good conversation starter, too.

H. H. Arnason's History of Modern Art is the best reference for its eponymous subject, with detailed and clear accounts of everything from the Impressionists until the 1980s.

Black's Law Dictionary and the DSM-V are pretty standard in their fields.

A bunch of Audubon field guides are pleasant-looking and practical.

If you're at all interested in computer programming, you should probably own the relevant O'Reilly animal books.

These are not reference books per se, but if you can find a set, the Great Books of the Western World are a collection that both looks great on a bookshelf AND are good to read.

Similarly, it would probably behoove you to own a complete set of Shakespeare's works, and maybe some Loeb volumes.

Finally, this is not at all a reference book, although I find myself referring to it frequently: Maxims by la Rochefoucauld.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:13 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I like having the People's Chronology around, but it is just lists by date and subject - no context or commentary. I use it for putting things in context when I read about a date. What else was going on when they were building the pyramids or when the Ottomans were attacking Constantinople?

There is an old book that homesteaders and ruralists used to have on their shelves called Henley's Formulas that tells you how to make concoctions for everything from silver polish to ink to window putty and what-not. So much fun to just read through.
posted by Tchad at 8:32 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

the best road atlases

Benchmark only makes road atlases for the western US. For the rest, DeLorme Gazetteers are the way to go, although general consensus seems to be that, where they exist, Benchmark atlases are more detailed and accurate.
posted by zamboni at 9:23 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Came for the Henle's Formulas reference, a great book just to have and flip through. I'd also add CRC Standard Mathematical Tables and Formulae. An old used version is probably just as fine. There's a CRC for Physics & Chemistry also. The CRC are just reference books that contain almost anything you'd ever want to look up.
posted by zengargoyle at 9:30 AM on September 19, 2017

The Oxford Companion to Beer is pretty interesting and detailed. To give you an idea of detailed, there are very comprehensive entries on individual varieties of hops.
posted by mmascolino at 10:27 AM on September 19, 2017

For a road atlas for the whole U.S., I used to carry the Large-Scale Motor Carrier's Road Atlas (Rand McNally, I think). Laminated pages, spiral bound, lots of states occupy two-pages so everything is easily readable. It has lots of tables, such as mileage between places. A great traveler's reference.
posted by MovableBookLady at 11:43 AM on September 19, 2017

The Ashley Book of Knots is regularly used in my household; sometimes we have a problem and are looking for a corresponding knot or plait, and also it's pretty and is a good sidelight to any historical material culture -- everything needed a knot.
posted by clew at 1:24 PM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

In my opinion the most important books to have in a home reference library are the Foxfire books. So interesting and informative, and will pretty much get you through the apocalypse.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:18 PM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Why do you whip egg whites in a copper bowl? Is an orange related to a grapefruit? Oh gee-- I wonder what the caffeine molecule looks like... BLAMO: On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee
posted by zem at 10:10 PM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Came back to add Nature's Building Blocks, which has much more information than you ever thought could possibly be interesting about every single element in the periodic table.
posted by protorp at 12:14 PM on September 21, 2017

Colin McEvedy's historical atlases are pretty great.

Also, it can be nice to have some art history books around. mortaddams gave a great summary in the Art History Starter Pack thread, and I second (third?) the recommendation of Sister Wendy - I have her Story of Painting and it's got a lot of good stuff.
posted by kristi at 11:03 AM on September 22, 2017

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