The not-lost-yet art of book browsing

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Shawn Sensiba
Thursday, October 18, 2012

You only had to know my mom for about 7 minutes before she would tell you a story about my fondness for reference books as a child.

“Sometimes it would be quiet upstairs, too quiet,” my mom would say. “I wondered if Shawn was even in the house. So I would sneak upstairs and find him reading—the encyclopedia.”

This story thrilled my mom to no end. I gained from her and my father an explicit love of knowledge. It is no surprise then that my love of reference books has never waned. Even in the e-book age, nothing beats browsing through a book that gathers together information in a useful and usable way. I am an information omnivore.

I was reminded of the value of reference books recently when I recently received my copy of “The Jazz Standards” by Ted Gioia.

Subtitled “A Guide The Repertoire,” this volume is such a great idea that I can’t believe that no one thought of it until now. Gioia, who also wrote “The History of Jazz,” takes 253 songs and researches their history, their quirks and who did the best versions of the title. There is, Gioia says, a stable of songs that jazz artists need to know—the cornerstones, if you will. Gioia’s book is a great reference book, and I would suggest, a browser’s dream.

One example from the book is Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” It’s a 1964 tune that I was introduced to in 1971 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used it as a theme for a short-lived jazz radio show he hosted in Milwaukee. The song has one of the great piano vamps of jazz, while a wonderful Freddy Hubbard trumpet solo plays over the top. Gioia is able to recommend four cover versions of the tune, which has been redone by a whole lot of artists. The most notable cover is by jazz/hip-hop band US3 in 1993. This is the kind of arcane information you can’t find just anywhere. I love discovering this kind of stuff. And the point in this case is that this is not the kind of book you sit down and systematically read from cover to cover. In my case, you browse it, jumping to and fro. You savor it in small pieces when the opportunity arises.

And while I am fully aware we are in a new electronic age, reference books of this sort don’t always translate well to an electronic format.

Another browsing favorite of mine from the reference shelf is David Thomson’s “New Biographical Dictionary of Film.” Thomson is an acerbic British critic who is controversial, engaging and witty. What’s not to like? I disagree with Thomson a lot, but his writing is so strong (and so entertaining) that I am always drawn back. I tried out an e-book version of that book and found it aggravating and basically useless. In this case, I want the book in my hands. I want to jump around randomly and read the Orson Welles entry, then Quentin Tarantino, then David Niven.

Do you have a favorite reference book? A dictionary? The Holy Bible? Or something else? Is there a book that you particularly enjoy browsing through? Share your experience with us.

Follow Shawn Sensiba on Twitter @shawnsensiba.

Last updated: 10:06 am Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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