Reference Books You Like

What reference books do you always have to hand when you are writing? Which ones do you refer to for ideas? Which ones would you like to have?

I have two favourites:

  • Chambers Dictionary Ninth Edition: what the Twentieth Century Dictionary became when it grew up. A wonderful single volume dictionary.

  • Brewer’s Phrase and Fable

What I would like to have is a decent single volume encylopaedia (Pear’s?), an encyclopaedia of science fiction and/or fantasy (so I can tell when I am being drearily derivative), and probably an American dictionary (so I can write to the audience around me rather to my own way of speaking)

Mine is "The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary - Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically ( two volumes in rigid case with magnifing glass in drawer ), " published by Oxford University Press , Oxford , 1987.

This is not the 'Compact Oxford English Dictionary", but the complete 16 volume OED printed at .6pt text, 8 pages to the view, (hence the magnifying glass), but it contains everything about any word that you might want to know including first usage examples. It was here that I learned that the word ‘Glamour’ is a corrupt form of the word ‘Grammar’. This was a special edition they brought out in 1987 and was the last edition of the OED where the only definition of ‘Computer’ is “one who computes, a calculator, a reckoner. specifically a person employed to make calculations in an observatory, for surveying, etc.”

It is available from some online used booksellers for approximately 90 pounds. Mine cost 50 pounds in 1988. Highly recommended and always enchanting.


For dictionaries, I use the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Third Edition, and the O.E.D. online, which I get free access to for having library card in Portland. I find these two compliment each other very well, as M-W has a fairly comprehensive set of recent words and technical terms, and the O.E.D. has a much greater depth for literary usage. I also have the 22 volume paper version of this, which takes up a decent sized wall.

I usually do quick fact checks with Wikipedia, and Google to verify. If I need more detailed information, the library is where I go, and those two resources can usually get me a decent enough list.

my dictionary is THE INTERNET.

well, the internet, and a bunch of weird reference books i’ve picked up. let’s see what I can remember while separated from my bookshelf.

—a bunch of books on typography
—Alchemy and Mysticism: Hermetic Museum: never opened it, but it was shiny and thick, so i had to have it
—Crimes of Perception: An Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics: lovely, full of lots of juicy and inspiring facts that apparently are absolutely nowhere to be found on the internet, thus marking it deeply with suspicion
—Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy
—Dinosaurus: BIG PICTURES OF DINOSAURS! WOO! not strictly useful reference for my work.
—Oxford Latin Dictionary
—Pocket German Dictionary of some stripe.
—Miscellaneous others

I really, really like reference books. All that information, packed into a nice dense little package. Fascinating design cases, too.

Lots of online dictionaries and references.,, Perseus, to name a few. Physical copies include the Chicago Manual of Style. Le Petit Robert, other language dictionaries, and my Oxford references on women writers, philosophy, german literature, etc.

I too have a neat reference book on dinsosaurs, but I’ve had it since I was eight and it’s pretty much falling apart. :slight_smile:


I love Wikipedia too, but my main problem with using online resources is that they disrupt my writing. My typical routine before I write is to turn off the internet: unplug the wire and disable the wireless card. And there’s so much more serendipity in a book.

Excuse me while I go on my curmudeonly way.

I urinate on your manuals of style.

Dunx, I have a pretty strict policy with myself, too. For me, research is something I always do first, and while I’m writing, I put down little notes to myself using annotations if there is something I neglected to research – or if the story goes in a direction I did not anticipate (well, that always happens). Then, once I am done writing, I do a quick search for all fact check annotations and sort it all out. I’ve never gone so far as unplugging the cable, but I do often use a “writing” account on my Mac. I use the parental features to lock myself out of everything except writing tools.

It sounds horrible; but I really am a bad procrastinator. I’m afraid to say this forum will definitely be one of the places I lock down. Ha.

Well, that’s…gross. As long as I do academic writing, I need mine. As soon as the dissertation is finished, I’ll join you. Well, er, maybe not, but in spirit I will!