Reference Books

Article excerpt

We rarely review reference books, but several have appeared recently that can be recommended to the student of contemporary literature. (And believe me, after eight years of editing a scholarly journal, I can tell you that critics don't use reference books nearly enough--to verify names, spelling, dates, etc.--and would be well-advised to pick up one of the following books instead of some newfangled excursion in literary theory.) The reference book having the greatest use is Merriam-Webster's new Encyclopedia of Literature (1,236 pp., $39.95). This has everything: concise, intelligent entries on authors, titles, characters, critics, literary terms, mythology, movements, prizes---everyone and everything from Jeppe Aakjaer to the Zuo zhuan, with an impressive number of contemporary writers (e.g., Sorrentino, Mosley, Brophy). It also gives the proper pronunciation of names, so if you've always wondered how to pronounce Kazantzakis or Saint-Exuprry, this will set you straight. The book is nicely illustrated--there's a pretty photo of Nancy Mitford, for example, and one of Pirandello typing with one finger--and beautifully designed. This should be on every critic's bookshelf, and in every literature major's working library, right next to that compact edition of the OED.

As comprehensive but focused on a single subject, The New Oxford Companion to French Literature (865 pp., $49.95) is an authoritative guide to every aspect of French literature, including francophone writing from outside France. Contemporary authors are well represented: Jacques Roubaud has an entry as long as Dumas fils. There are numerous extraliterary entries as well, such as cinema and painting. Edited by Peter France, this is an invaluable aid to studying French literature.

More specialized yet is HarperCollins's Reader's Encyclopedia of Eastern European Literature (605 pp. …