What reference books sit on your desk?

Guest blogger Jason Sanford often rants on his website at www.jasonsanford.com. His fiction has been published in Interzone, Year’s Best SF 14, Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Pindeldyboz, and other places, and has won the 2008 Interzone Readers’ Poll and a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship.

So you dare call yourself a writer! If that’s the case, here’s my question: What reference books sit on your desk?

And yes, we know all about that amazing resource called the internet. And yes, we all use Wikipedia as a quick learning tool (even if we don’t admit it). And yes, if we have to quickly look up the spelling of a word, we Google it.

But what reference materials are so vital to your writing that they sit in bound form on your desk?

For me, these vital reference books are:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition
  • The Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
  • The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus
  • The Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage

Unfortunately, my Dictionary of English Usage is getting a bit old, so my Christmas wish (to be fulfilled by Santa in the form of my ever-loving wife) was to request a copy of the brand new Garner’s Modern American Usage. I’ve heard great things about this book and can’t wait to receive it.

For good measure, I also requested a copy of two books by Theodore M. Bernstein which I’ve previously read but no longer have: The Careful Writer and Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage. All of these new books already have a space waiting for them on my desk.

Otherwise, my desk has a few religious texts and concordances (mainly Christian and Buddhist), along with the newest book in my reference library: Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer. I know, I know. That seems like a bit of a suck up considering this is Jeff’s blog, but the book is still there so I must be honest. Beside, Booklife is a great resource for writers, as I mentioned in my review a while back.

That’s what’s on my desk, or will be shortly. What reference materials are on your desk?

17 comments on “What reference books sit on your desk?

  1. BJ Muntain says:

    Canadian Press Style Guide, CP Caps and Spelling, Oxford Canadian Dictionary, Editing Canadian English and Oxford Canadian Usage. Right now, they’re at work, which drives me crazy when I’m editing at home.

  2. Adam Lowe says:

    I have the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (full of interesting articles on writing, art, literature, etc), Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Trusse, Encarta Dictionary of World English (includes UK, US, and a variety of Englishes) and The Illustrated Book of Myths and Legends. (Hey, I like pictures after looking at all that text!)

  3. I have a long desk. I have an assortment of Oxford Companions—-Art, Supreme Court, Archaeology, Classical Literature, World Religions, Philosophy, English Language, English Literature,etc—-then a short span of history books on the period I’m working on at the moment (1780 to 1820), then Asimov’s Guide to Science, the QPB Science Enclyclopedia, half a dozen dictionaries (including the OED and Webster’s Collegiate), all of which abutts my first large set of bookshelves containing history and science…

    They change from time to time, sometimes seemingly when I’m not looking…

  4. Ask a reference librarian what he keeps at his writing desk…

    Langenscheidt’s Pocket Latin Dictionary
    Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist
    Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing
    Gardner’s The Art of Fiction
    Ernest Hemingway on Writing
    The New American Roget’s College Thesaurus
    Delany’s About Writing
    Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp
    Zinsser’s On Writing Well (3rd ed.)
    Strunk & White
    The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature
    Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
    Goldberg’s Wild Mind
    Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones
    Butler’s From Where You Dream
    Harper Collins German Dictionary
    Oxford English-(Modern) Greek Learner’s Dictionary
    Oxford (Modern) Greek-English Learner’s Dictionary
    Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary
    King’s On Writing
    Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life
    Atkins’ Widow’s Weeds and Weeping Veils: Mourning Rituals in 19th Century America
    Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (the “big Liddell,” for all you Classics nerds)
    Lewis & Short’s Latin Dictionary
    Fitzgerald on Authorship
    2006 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market
    Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy
    Writing Horror
    MLA Handbook (4th)
    Chicago Manual of Style (14th)
    Oxford Hachette Pocket French Dictionary
    The McGraw-Hill College Handbook
    Ekirch’s At Day’s Close
    Speidel’s Sons of the Profits
    McCausland’s Washington’s Westport
    Butler’s Dictionary of the Tarot
    Waite’s The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
    Koontz’s How to Write Best-Selling Fiction

    …and yes, I do have a bookcase built into my desk. Not all of the above are reference books, strictly speaking, but I keep them close at hand for the not infrequent moments when I do need them.

  5. Oh yeah, didn’t list the English dictionary: the OED online, which I get access to via my day job…

  6. SMD says:

    I don’t have a desk…however, a book that I keep on hand is one my grandmother gave me. It’s an old 1800s dictionary of Roman/Greek mythology and history. It’s one of my favorite books and has just about everything you’d need, from the gods to the actual people and places, with often very detailed information about each. It even has a lot of obscure stuff. You know, like names of people or places you’ve never heard of, but who actually matter in some way. It’s nifty. No idea what it’s called…but it’s old.

  7. Will Hindmarch says:

    I don’t keep that many reference books right on my desk, but I do have these: The AP Style Guide, Strunk and White, a glossary of literary terms, a creaky pedestrian dictionary, the New Oxford Annotated Bible (with the Apocrypha), Web Design In A Nutshell for CSS reference, and another creaky HTML book I forgot was there. It’s been a bit since I cracked open any of those except the dictionary and the CSS reference, truth be told.

  8. Matt says:

    I don’t have a desk either, and my books are arranged in a wherever-they’ll-fit kind of fashion. But the reference books that would go on a nearby shelf?

    The Elements of Style
    On Writing – King
    Bird by Bird – Lamott
    The Right to Write – Cameron
    Wild Mind – Goldberg
    Beginnings, Middles & Ends – Kress
    Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint – Kress
    Writer’s Guide to Character Traits – Edelstein
    The Samurai Sourcebook – Turnbull
    Superhero – Coogan
    Bulfinch’s Mythology
    The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology
    Mythology – Hamilton
    The Metamorphoses – Ovid
    A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction – Searles
    A Reader’s Guide to Fantasy – Searles
    On Writing Well – Zinsser
    The Art of Fiction – Gardner
    Writing Fiction – Burroway
    Zen in the Art of Writing – Bradbury
    The Art of Subtext – Baxter
    The Greek Myths – Graves
    2006 Writer’s Market
    Take Joy – Yolen
    Steering the Craft – Le Guin
    The Craft of Science Fiction – Bretnor
    Scene & Structure – Bickham
    Reading Like a Writer – Prose
    The First Five Pages – Lukeman
    Merriam-Webster Dictionary
    Merriam-Webster Thesaurus
    The Writer’s Idea Book – Heffron
    Sometimes the Magic Works – Brooks
    The Pocket Muse – Wood
    Simply Astrology – Jackson
    Eats, Shoots and Leaves – Truss

    Obviously, it’ll be a rather sizable shelf.

  9. I have a stuffed Goomba and an internet connection on my desk. I need little else.

  10. Jason,

    Almost the same as you: Chicago, 15th ed.; Merriam-Webster Collegiate; and my pride and joy, a two-volume set of the OED—you know, the one that you need a magnifying glass to read. It’s an old set, so it doesn’t have the new words in it, but let’s face it: When you’re going to the OED, information on new words is not what you’re looking for.

  11. NewGuyDave says:

    Actually on the desk:

    Elements of Style – from desk to laptop bag and back again, a manual’s journey
    Chicago Manual of Style 14th Edition (needs updating- Santa?)
    Writers Digest Elements of Fiction Writing Series – Description by Monica Wood, and Beginnings, Middles, Endings – Nancy Kress (although, done with this and it’s departing soon).

    I have other reference books that have moved off the desk to a nearby shelf, but I shall not list them all for brevity.

  12. I’m more on J.M.’s end of things — I rely mostly on online versions of different reference books these days. I even have a copy of “Elements of Style” on my computer. Then again, I do have three bookshelves in my office, as well…

  13. I used to have a copy of The Elements of Style on my reference desk, but I used it less and less until it migrated to the bookcase nearby. While it’s still a good book, it no longer resonated like it did when I first encountered it in high school.

    BTW, don’t get me started on all the reference books I have on the bookcase nearby. My motto is you can never have too many books!

  14. jere7my says:

    Roget’s International Thesaurus (4th Edition), Mirriam-Webster’s English Usage Dictionary, Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Schaum’s Mathematical Handbook, CMoS 15. (I really need to get a lectern to keep the dictionary open on. Hm.)

    I like my thesaurus (it’s well-stocked with what I would call writerly synonyms — colorful, unusual, archaic), and it’s probably the reference book I open most often, but I’m open to new ideas. If I may ask, what drew you to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, Jason?

  15. I have a Chambers Dictionary (actually, I have two), a Penguin Rhyming Dictionary, Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus (bought, with great foresight, in the 20th Century), The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (which is getting rather old for its title), and The Oxford Reverse Dictionary – which isn’t a listing from Z to A, as you might think, but a reasonable attempt at getting words off the tip of your tongue by grouping them associatively.

  16. Wow wie immer ein interessanter Post. Wenn doch nur alle Blogs so angenehm zu lesen wären. Gruß Marta Mccleese

Comments are closed.