Ever since I was a little kid I’ve had a thing for reference books. I remember flipping through my mom’s books of accounting tables and my dad’s “Rubber Bible” (Handbook of Chemistry and Physics) before I had any idea of what they contained. Later I spent many happy times flipping through our Columbia Encyclopedia and National Geographic World Atlas. Even now that the web has become the ultimate reference, my hankering for giant tomes of knowledge has not abated. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, most of the books I buy are reference books.
So, while shopping for an updated Spanish-English dictionary (my old one doesn’t even have an entry for “Internet”), I stumbled across some delightful reference works from Larousse. I already have two Larousse French-English dictionaries, including the “advanced” dictionary, their largest. It is the thickest book I own, with a sturdy convex spine that seems well able to take the weight of all 2,300+ pages. Inside it has large, easy to scan headwords, extra organization for long entries, boxes with additional information on important topics (mostly historical and geographic), and a bilingual “cultural supplement,” an illustrated guide to French and English literature, art, and architecture, with additional pages on transportation, sports, technology, nature, and geography. This latter section follows in the tradition of illustrated Larousse dictionaries and encyclopedias, which I have only just come to appreciate.
I do have an old 1980 petit Larousse en couleurs (yes, it’s capitalized, or rather, not capitalized that way), an illustrated encyclopedic dictionary only marginally thinner than my big Larousse dictionary. Perhaps I should call it a dictionary-encyclopedia because it has two sections, one for vocabulary, the other for people, places, and works of art (the first entry in the encylopedia section is Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu). It is illustrated throughout, which makes for enjoyable flipping even if I don’t understand every word of the definitions.
I found it amusing that such a large book (it weighs over 6 pounds) was called “petit,” but have since learned that this is in comparison to the Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopédique Larousse, a ten-volume encyclopedic dictionary last published in the 1980’s, and the earlier 17-volume Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIX Siècle compiled by Pierre Larousse himself. These are not the Petit Larousse’s only big brothers, however.
Intermediate in size is the Grand Usuel Larousse, a five-volume “every day” slipcased paperback encyclopedic dictionary and atlas. Based on the 1987 Grand Larousse en 5 volumes, this set was published in 1997 and is now out of print. Smaller still is the Grand Larousse Illustré, a three-volume set published in 2005. This work really fascinates me because it had the option (only available in Europe, it seems) of automatically linking articles in the paper volumes to multimedia resources in the companion CD-ROM. It did this by way of small graphical codes printed with the text that could be read with a wireless USB scanner. Scanning one of these “chips” launched the CD-ROM on your computer and brought up the relevant material.
This seems like a remarkable innovation, especially for 2005. Stefanie recently blogged about QR codes in books, which can be scanned with a cell phone to view relevant mobile web pages, but so far only one book has been published with this technology. Larousse, which has always been a progressive publisher, was once again ahead of its time. Could this breathe new life into the paper encyclopedia? Alas, even the high-tech Grand Larousse Illustré is out of print, and Larousse has moved its reference material online. Only the Petit Larousse is alive and well after 105 years in print, with new editions every year in French and Spanish. Larousse Mexico also publishes the Larousse Enciclopedia Quod, an illustrated encyclopedia in Spanish arranged by subject, more like a textbook about everything than an A–Z encyclopedia. For some reason, Amazon is selling the 2009 Quod (list price $43.50) for a mere $3.08. Is it a typo or are the gods of reference books smiling on me (and not for the first time)? Who cares, I’ll take it!
More on Le Grand Larousse Illustré (in French):