An illustration from Bundesbuch von Magenau (Book of the Covenant of Magenau), 1790.
One of the many things that dates my childhood firmly to the eighties and early nineties is the ubiquity of large reference books in it. Reference books, big ones, figure in most of my memories; I guess they were easy to find at tag sales. At any given moment, you could find me poring over The Great TV Sitcom Book, The Doctor’s Book of Home Remedies, Best Movie Quotes, or The Big Broadway Fake Book, which is in fact probably still in use for auditions, since it contains only sheet music. (I read this only in moments of desperation.) However, it should be said that lines were drawn: someone once gave my family one of those dedicated Great American Bathroom Books, and my mother found it disgusting and threw it away immediately.
For a few years, this sort of tome—eighties excess between two covers—must have had imprints in every major publishing house of the era. There was a distinctive look to the volumes, which were probably intended as gifts or coffee-table items, but had their own low shelf at our house. Monumental title adjectives—great, big, ultimate, definitive—were desirable. The font had to be assertive. It was also a good idea to have lots of the content listed on the jacket, a taste of the great knowledge contained therein. Obviously they had to be physically large, as unwieldy as possible—although I carried them from room to room. It wasn’t just me, either. My friends liked them, too, as I remember, but this may be a comment on the quality of entertainment on offer at my playdates.
Genrewise, I was particularly fond of esoterica, such as the sort found in The People’s Almanac. That and a huge volume of obscure baseball trivia were both in heavy rotation, although I don’t recall ever particularly impressing anyone with my knowledge. The finest book of all was one I found at my grandparents’ house: it was called The Best, and it authoritatively identified all the best stuff in the world. I guess it was the end of an era of absolutes; the 1981 Genius Edition of Trivial Pursuit was a mark of your knowledge, the Scrabble Dictionary had the last word, and if some guy said that the Bentley Fortissimo was the greatest tennis racquet of 1984, well then, that was that.
Some of the big books served a specific function, of course. My brother had enormous compendia of Simpsons trivia, and we had one devoted to the history of the Little Rascals. In a pinch, I would curl up with a Leonard Maltin omnibus; I also had a book called the Film Encyclopedia that I read, for fun.
I went into this feeling very nostalgic, thinking of a time when you got your trivia from between two covers, rather than a digital rabbit hole. And it’s certainly true the Internet has rendered this genre—or whatever it was—obsolete. Yet, walk into any Urban Outfitters: stupid books are enjoying a golden age. On one book cover, a dog balances a slice of watermelon on its nose. A furious cat glowers from another. A third promises hundreds of pages worth of drinking games. Yes, they may be smaller and more portable. But there are memories to be made there.
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