I’ve long taken these friends for granted, but as big reference books of all kinds are superseded by Wikipedia and Google and begin to crowd the shelves of used bookstores, maybe an appreciation is called for. The Oxford Companions always took pride of place on my parents’ best bookshelves, low down over the back of the couch, an easy reach for a kneeling kid. I used to look at the smoky whaling scene on the cover of the Companion to American Literature, and I wondered why the girl on the spine of the Companion to English Literature looked so sad.
The Companions (we also had the Companion to Classical Literature and the Companion to the English Language; Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations always struck me as an honorary member of the company) are not-quite-encyclopedic miscellanies of the titular subjects, including primarily authors and works, but also characters, periodicals, places, mythological figures, and so on. The original, the Companion to English Literature first published in 1932, contains quite a bit on the Greek and Latin classics, major French and American figures, anything that made an impression on English letters at all, really.
The books are okay for actual reference, but of course they can hardly compete with the internet. Once a week, maybe, I’ll turn to them before I turn to Wikipedia. They are wonderful for aimless browsing, of course, but the same can be said again for Wikipedia. What they really have going, besides mere authority, is their stubborn upholding of the archaic and forgotten. I can look up Jane Austen, of course, and then I discover she’s flanked by the minor Roman poet Ausonius, and by Alfred Austin (1835 – 1913), barrister and one time poet laureate of England. These figures were once really important, probably to some of the people who are still important to us, and that is why they deserve to be remembered. You might find them on Wikipedia, but they don’t form any large part of the typical Wiki binge. They’re also good for the occasional blunt editorial judgement: Austin “published twenty volumes of verse, of little merit”.
I’m always meaning to investigate more recent editions of the Companion to English Literature; the latest came out in 2009. They’re always a little hard to track down, librarians somehow being reluctant just to stick them all in one place. Certainly significant efforts have been made to update, include, contextualize… I doubt that the latest versions can compete with mine of 1967, in terms of price if nothing else. There are also many, many new Companions on subjects that to me seem like rather a stretch, like Mark Twain and beer. They’re probably fun, but these are not small investments in shelf space or money!
Since my parents of course were not parting with theirs, I’ve had to build up my own collection. The English companion I inherited from a grandparent; I found my used Bartlett’s for a now exhorbitant seeming $15; the American I found at a library sale for an incredible $2. The Oxford Guide to Philosophy appears to be an unsuccessful rebranding of the series for the American market; I found it remaindered at Borders for a well spent $10. Finally, Princeton jumped ahead of Oxford with its daring Companion to Mathematics. Perhaps it was an impossible venture, it’s hard for me to judge.
The very well done Oxford Companion to French Literature was probably my first companion purchase, but it now resides with my parents’ collection. I may raise my eyebrows at the Companion to Australian Gardens or the Companion to American Food and Drink, but I have to appreciate their thoroughness and I may still invest in a Companion to Spanish Literature, a Companion to German Literature… For years I was certain that there existed an Oxford Companion to Russian Literature. It seemed indispensable. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that there is no such book! Does anyone know of a suitable replacement?