Recreational reference book recommendations!
February 13, 2018 9:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the "w" section of the engrossing Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape, and am about to run out of book. What are your favorite reference books for casual reading? I mean one that is suited for those moments when you have just the time or inclination to get through an entry or three.

I'm especially looking for suggestions off of the beaten path--I'd not heard of Home Ground until last year. I love me some OED, but my compact edition is unwieldy for bed.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ooh! I have a bunch of these, mostly used-bookstore finds (so they're not necessarily all in print). Some of these are not strictly reference books, but still very flipthroughable.

-Shakespeare's Bawdy by Eric Partridge: a comprehensive dictionary of every dirty word in the the works of the bard
-The Naming of Animals by Adrian Room: an academic but accessible account of possible way that animals are personally named (i.e., "Fluffy," not "dog")
-A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander: classic of 1970s utopian architecture, with 2-3 page best practices on everything from regional planning to window placement
-The Cloudspotter's Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney: clouds are fascinating!
-Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane: a treasury of obscure or dialectical British/Irish names for land features, interspersed with moving profiles of nature writers
-Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky: lovely, poetic one-page meditations about fifty mostly uninhabited islands

And again, not quite a reference book, but if you liked Home Ground, George R. Stewart's Names on the Land is a classic of that genre.
posted by theodolite at 9:48 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]


This is going to sound crazy, but Jolie Kerr's "My Boyfriend Barfed in my Handbag and Other Things You Can't Ask Martha" is a really entertaining read! Very educational, funny, and easy to pick up in bite-size chunks.
posted by radioamy at 9:55 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


I am a sucker for these sorts of things, I especially like fixit guide type stuff. Here are a few of the "old school illustrated" variety.

- The Septic System Owners Manual
- The Tooth Trip
- Whole Earth Catalogs generally
- All of the Book of Lists and People's Almanacs (I am a librarian of a certain age)

Along more traditional reference works

- any version (old or new) of what is now called Garner's Modern English Usage
- Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior
posted by jessamyn at 9:56 AM on February 13 [3 favorites]


2nding Garner's Modern American Usage and A Pattern Language.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 9:59 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


100 Years of the American Auto

Fascinating to learn about how the designs changed over the years.
posted by Melismata at 10:11 AM on February 13


The Joys of Yiddish is a lexicon of Yiddish words and phrases, each one illustrated by a joke or a story.

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones provides many Zen koans, many both amusing and enlightening.
posted by ubiquity at 10:23 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Larousse Gastronomique. Not quite 'take to bed' but fascinating to dip into at the table.
posted by gyusan at 10:58 AM on February 13


This is great material, thank you everybody!
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 11:03 AM on February 13


Kate Ascher, The Works. Urban infrastructure (specifically NYC).

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. (Link is to a new edition; older versions are obviously more dated, but also better reading, IMO.)

Paul West, Secret Lives of Words. My favorite short book on English etymology & oddities. Arranged alphabetically, so it's easy to skip around in.
posted by miles per flower at 11:05 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


When I was headed off to college years ago my sister gave me a copy of An Incomplete Education. It's that sort of book. I enjoyed it at the time (unlike the risible Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, which I won't even give the courtesy of a link), but I have no idea if it has aged well. I would sort of assume it hasn't.

There's a book of A History of the World in 100 Objects that seemed very digestible but which has gotten some criticism for some of its viewpoints (for being a bit colonial and Eurocentric, which, well, seems maybe unavoidable).
posted by fedward at 11:11 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]


This might not be 100% what you're looking for, but I'm perpetually in love with The Ocean Almanac, and it's super flip-aroundable.
posted by knownassociate at 11:21 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson is literally perfect for this.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:24 AM on February 13 [4 favorites]


The Anatomy of Melancholy is a weird book. It's about 400 years old, and about 1,400 pages long, and it's subject is indeed "melancholy".

Randomly dipping in for an entry or three is pretty much the only way to realistically engage with it, but it's interesting.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 11:26 AM on February 13 [1 favorite]


I'm a huge fan of A Field Guide to American Houses, which is exactly what it sounds like.
posted by everybody had matching towels at 12:59 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects

I found this book in a Little Free Library, and really wound up liking it. The format is one chapter for each month of the year, and they are not super long: The Year 1000.
posted by gudrun at 12:59 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Common Ground's wonderful England in Particular. You can get a used copy for less than $10.
posted by ryanshepard at 2:06 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape, Brian Hayes. The chapter on the power grid alone has me forever noticing the configuration of overhead power lines. Also, any of Rebecca Solnit's atlas projects: Infinite City (on San Francisco), Unfathomable City (on New Orleans), and Nonstop Metropolis (on New York). Short essays on interesting topics with creative cartography, ideal for dipping into.
posted by madrone at 2:32 PM on February 13 [2 favorites]


Tune In Yesterday (or his updated version, On the Air) is a comprehensive, compulsively interesting reference book about old-time radio shows. It doesn't just talk about the big hits—it even discusses radio shows that no longer exist in circulation except as newspaper and radio magazine clippings.
posted by Polycarp at 3:20 PM on February 13 [1 favorite]


Oh oh OH and if you can find any of the Foxfire books get them! It's a collection of Appalachian folk wisdom. They're super-interesting! And they'll be great to have around in our dystopian future.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:09 PM on February 13 [5 favorites]




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