Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature

When it comes to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, I've been a firm believer (and consistent user) of the book since I purchased it in hardcover back in 1989.  That volume, the fifth edition, is the one edited by Margaret Drabble, and it is over 1100 pages long.  Obviously, there is a lot packed into such a thick book - but, thankfully, it is surprisingly light in weight and easy to handle.  According to its dust jacket, this edition is the one that first included references to "detective stories, science fiction, children's literature, comic strips," and the like.  It also included foreign-language authors whose works had been largely translated into English.

I don't recall what I spent for that book 23 years ago, but if I could price it per time referenced, I'm sure it would be one of the better book bargains I've ever managed to snag.

That is why I was so pleased to receive a copy of The Oxford Concise Companion to English Literature in the mail today.  "Concise" is one of those words, however, that must be considered in the proper context.  Admittedly, this paperback is a good bit physically smaller than my "full" 1989 volume, but it manages to come in at a bit over 800 pages, itself.  This one, with a nod to previous editors Drabble and Jenny Stringer, was edited by Dinah Birch and Katy Hooper.  This fourth edition of the "concise" Companion makes some changes of its own by expanding coverage of "science fiction, biography, travel literature, women's writing, gay and lesbian writing, and American literature."

I am addicted to "literary lists" and always find them fascinating, so I am particularly happy about the appendices listing winers of the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Man Booker prizes.  I try to keep updated lists of winners of the best known literary prizes on my own, but never manage to keep up for long. This gives me a fresh start as of the 2011 winners.

Other indices are: Chronology (listing key books alongside significant historical events of the same year), Poet Laureate (British), Children's Laureates, Library Association Carnegie Medalists, King's and Queen's Gold Medals for Poetry, and T.S. Eliot Prizes for Poetry,.

Those browsing an Oxford Companion or a Concise Companion for the first time will be pleased, I think, to find hundreds of author biographies, plot summaries, sketches of individual characters, references focusing on key books, genre fiction, literary theory, historical context, etc. (5500 entries in the concise version, alone).

As noted on its cover, this new (as of October 11) Concise edition is also "web linked."  Scattered throughout, are suggestions to turn to the web for additional information about subjects covered in the book.  For instance, beneath the section on William Blake, is the "See Web Links" icon and the words "The William Blake Archive."  A quick search of Google for the archive led me here, to a helpful website I had never seen.

Past experience tells me that, for avid readers, this will be the best $20 spent this year.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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