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You could look it up

Review by Ed Quillen

Reference books – January 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

ALTHOUGH I’M HARD TO BEAT at certain versions of Trivial Pursuit or You Don’t Know Jack, I still need to look things up frequently. Maybe it’s my age, but I prefer printed pages to computer screens, and it is my firm belief that it is impossible to own too many reference books.

Always nearby I keep The American Heritage Dictionary: Second College Edition. It has the clearest definitions, as determined by a parlor game we played once: one person reads definitions, and the others try to guess the word being defined.

This game is usually harder than it sounds, but I guess the easiest way to explain it is to try it. Remember that extra points are awarded for getting a word on its first definition. “1. n. A great crowd; throng; multitude 2. A coming, moving, or flowing together.”

Not so easy, huh? But definition three pretty much gives it away. “3 a. A large open space for the gathering or passage of crowds as in a railroad station. b. A broad thoroughfare.” The word “concourse” isn’t so easy to get from the first definition is it? And that’s from the dictionary we always found to work best.

If I need more about a word, there’s the Random House Unabridged and the compact (you need a magnifying glass) two-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. We also keep Encyclop√¶dia Britannica and the Hammond World Atlas at hand.

For general information, the first place I turn is the current edition of The World Almanac. It’s got more than 1,000 pages with a useful index and maps, and it’s only $10.95.

If it’s not in the Almanac, I turn to the Statistical Abstract of the United States. It’s published annually by the U.S. Department of Commerce, although the schedule seems to vary — 2000 is almost over, and the 1999 edition is still the most current. It’s got every demographic statistic you can imagine, along with agricultural and economic information, and it costs about $40. Your can get it directly from the government publications outlet in Pueblo, but it costs the same (or even less) if you order it from a local bookstore, and the local bookstore will make a little money in that case.

In general, the Statistical Abstract numbers go back only to 1970. For detailed information before that, there’s the two-volume Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970. It used to be published by the Government Printing Office, but during the Reagan years, the book got privatized. The government sold it for about $50, and now it’s well over $100, making it rather pricey for private use. If your library doesn’t have it, complain until it does — how else are you going to know the wholesale price of nails in Kansas City in 1860? (Back when we wrote Westerns, we did need to know such things — or at least we thought we did, although it strikes us that a lot of writers of historical fiction usually get it wrong.)

For quotations, of course there’s Bartlett. But if you need something interesting (i.e., “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,” from John Adams, second president of the United States), the best source is The Great Quotations, compiled by George Seldes.

When you know what something looks like, but you can’t think of its name, the Visual Dictionary by Jean-Claude Corbeil comes to the rescue. The big pictures are easy to find, and you can quickly see that phloem is just inside the bark on a tree. Another offbeat but useful reference is The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, just the thing for those times when you need a map of Oz, Laputa, or Atlantis.

As for regional references, start with The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West, edited by Howard Lamar. It covers everything from Arapahoe to women’s suffrage, and it’s thorough: there’s an entry for Jerome B. Chaffee, namesake of a Colorado county.

If I were ambitious, I’d try to publish a Colorado Almanac or Statistical Abstract of Colorado, because I could sure use one.

There used to be something like that: The Colorado Yearbook, published annually and semi-annually from about 1900 into the 1960s. I’ve acquired two over the years, from 1935 and from 1956 and they’re invaluable, even if they are outdated.

For reasonably detailed Colorado maps, the most convenient is The Colorado Atlas & Gazeteer, published by DeLorme.

WE HAVE PLENTY OF nature references about Rocky Mountain animals, minerals, and vegetables. My favorite is an odd-shaped pamphlet: Rocky Mountain Tree Finder, which offers an almost idiot-proof way to identify native trees by examining their needles or leaves (i.e, if the needles are sharp, turn to page 22).

Not all these references were acquired new; I found many of them by poking around in some of my favorite places — used bookstores.

Although I always find things I want on these explorations, I don’t always find what I’m looking for. Here’s where the Internet comes in.

The best general reference source on the ‘Net is at It has some annoying features, but I use it more than any other search engine. And for finding used books, there’s Alibris.

What with Amazon and Barnes & Noble on line, I feared for the fate of local bookstores — which are some of the mainstays at keeping this magazine in business.

Some independent bookstores, like Adventure Media in Salida and the Book Mine in Leadville, have joined “Book Sense,” which lets you get a gift certificate at one store that can be used at any other participating store, even across the country.

Others have established a web presence. First Street Books in Salida has a website at, and if you click on Alibris from there, First Street gets a percentage of whatever you buy through Alibris.

Alibris is wonderful. For years I had been hunting for an out-of-print classic, Massacre: Tragedy at White River by Marshall Sprague. Alibris found half a dozen copies, I clicked on the cheapest ($17.50 for a hard-cover in good condition), and I had it a few days later. A book reviewed recently in these pages (The Metropolitan Frontier by Carl Abbott) was $40 in new hardback, but $8.95 in used paperback from Alibris.

So, if you’re hunting for references, prowl the local new and used bookstores; you’ll always find something useful. And if you end up hunting on the ‘Net, you can still support local enterprises while getting the full benefit of the Internet’s vast resources. Maybe I’ll get thrown out of the Central Colorado Coalition of Curmudgeons, but I have to tell the truth: some things are getting better.

Ed Quillen threw out some out-dated World Alamnacs when the family moved in 1989, and has regretted it ever since.