Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
The reference shelf from ancient Babylon to Wikipedia 464pp. Bloomsbury. £25 (US $30).
978 0 8027 7752 2
In the Lower Reading Room of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, there is an entire bookshelf – quite a big bookshelf – filled with concordances to Classical Greek and Latin authors. When I was an undergraduate, I worked at the desk next to it most days. The books are still there, in more or less the same place they always were: the four fat sober grey volumes of A Concordance to Livy; Isabella Gualandri’s Index nominum propriorum quae in scholiis Tzetzianis ad Lycophronem laudantur; A Lexicon to Herodotus, compiled by none other than the young Enoch Powell.
It is little short of a miracle that the concordances, lists of all the words appearing in a given text, have so long survived the librarians’ regular purges of the open shelves stock in the Lower Reading Room. Frankly, the entire C.Index shelfmark could be hauled off and shredded and no one would be any worse off. All 400 lb of them are utterly obsolete, obsolete as few books in history have ever been obsolete. Even out-of-date telephone directories retain some historical interest. Print concordances have no intrinsic interest at all: they are simply bad paper search engines designed for a world which had not yet invented good online search engines. These massive reference works, the products of years of human drudgery, have been entirely superseded by two or three online databases of Greek and Latin literature. If I want to find all instances of the word haimasiē, “low fencing-wall”, in Herodotus, I can do so online in a matter of seconds, thanks to the digital Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (eight hits). MORE