Friday, April 10, 2009

Jack Pendarvis on Reference Books

On Reference! by Jack Pendarvis
I love reference books. I have tons of them. There is nothing more pleasurable than thumbing through a reference book. The subject doesn't matter.

Back when people had money, I would occasionally treat myself to a lavish volume like FISHES OF ALABAMA by Roschung and Mayden, with illustrations by Joseph R. Tomelleri. I don't care about fishes too much. But I love this book about them. It's elaborate and thorough. It makes me think of the book Bruno Schulz describes at the beginning of SANATORIUM UNDER THE SIGN OF THE HOURGLASS (another favorite book, though I don't think you could call it a reference book except in the most mystical way): "The Book lay still and the wind opened it softly like a huge cabbage rose: the petals, one by one, eyelid under eyelid, all blind, velvety, and dreamy, slowly disclosed a blue pupil, a colored peacock's heart..."

Reference books don't have to be expensive. I got a whole hardcover five-volume set of BUTLER'S LIVES OF THE SAINTS at a yard sale for like $2.00. There's some water damage, but the saints can take it!

I have too many reference books to tell you about. I just noticed, while trying to decide which ones to feature here, that Edward O. Wilson wrote the forward to both FISHES OF ALABAMA and THE BEHAVIOR GUIDE TO AFRICAN MAMMALS. I guess he's the go-to guy for your nature reference book forwards. I love that BEHAVIOR GUIDE in part because some of the illustrations are so lovably crude and simple. My favorite example is the chart that claims to show you all nine of a cat's possible facial expressions. I could look at it all day, and sometimes I do. The best cat facial expression might be "an offensive mood unaffected by fear."

I have a bunch of dictionaries of symbols, and I like comparing them. Which one will say the most interesting thing about horses, for example? It's fun to find out! According to Cirlot, "Jung came to wonder if the horse might not be a symbol for the mother." What the...? Says Tresidder, "Of all animals, their symbolism is the least limited, ranging from light to darkness, sky to earth, life to death." I like my symbols more specific and weird, so I'm giving this point to Cirlot.

Walter Benjamin's THE ARCADES PROJECT is like an extremely personal and soulful reference book.

You can't go wrong with the DICTIONARY OF ANCIENT DEITIES. Never know when it might come in handy. It hasn't yet, but you never know!

Speaking of ancient deities, my wife and I have recently started watching BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, on which practically everything is named after a Greek place, event or god. This gives me an excuse to constantly drag out THE OXFORD CLASSICAL DICTIONARY. It doesn't really add anything to the show, but it gives me a good feeling.

FILM NOIR: AN ENCYCLOPEDIC REFERENCE TO THE AMERICAN STYLE contains a few small and baffling errors. But I only know that because it's so wonderfully gripping and accessible I have practically read the covers off of it, and because it has led me to view firsthand dozens of movies I never would have heard of otherwise.

Probably the book I have owned for the longest time is a reference book. It's called HOW TO KNOW THE BIRDS by Roger Tory Peterson. The date written on the inside cover, under my name, is 1971, when I was eight. This book exemplifies something I love about reference books: they have to put things a simple way that strikes me as poetic. Here are some questions under the section "How Does It Fly?" from HOW TO KNOW THE BIRDS:

Does it undulate (dip up and down) like a Goldfinch (below) or a Flicker?

Does it have a straight arrow-like flight like a Dove (below), a Starling or a Duck?

Does it fly erratically, lurching this way and that, like a Nighthawk?

Does it skim like a Swallow or a Tern?

Does it soar like a Gull (below) or a Hawk?

Does it beat its wings slowly like a Heron, or rapidly like a Songbird or a Duck?

Does it progress with an even wing-beat or with several flaps and a sail?

Does it travel in flocks?

PS I forgot to mention THE WPA GUIDE TO 1930s IOWA, in case you're planning a trip to 1930s Iowa. And the great Vance Randolph's DOWN IN THE HOLLER: A GALLERY OF OZARK FOLK SPEECH, in which we learn not to say red onion, moosey, twitchet, satchel, or monkey in the presence of a lady.

---The Downer Avenue bookseller relationship with Jack Pendarvis exemplifies the grand opportunity for the readerly/authorly connection enhanced by the worldwidewebworld (Facebook, blogland). In short, our obsession with this Pendarvis fella can not only be reflected in booksales but also in wall posts and blog comments. Lucky him, lucky us- right? Right.

Jack lives in Oxford, MS, where he "teaches", "writes" and pals around with Tom Franklin. Keep up to date with his wit, groundhog next door and Jerry Lewis love at


  1. Well played! Here's one of my all-time favorite reference books:

  2. I've taken to watching television with the Encyclopedia of Surfing on my lap. I also picked up the Merriam-Webster Sports Dictionary to accompany my journey through John McPhee's 'A Sense of Where You Are' and the 'Macrophenomenal Pro-Basketball Almanac'.

    In regards to Jack's post, that behavioral guide to African mammals might serve as a great companion to that Zone book about the great lakes of Africa- which I NEEDNEEDNEED more and more every day.