Part of the joy of working on reference books is finding really unusual reference books. Here are my top five (non-dictionary, non-thesaurus):
The Word Menu:
Really, this book is indispensible. I send it to people so often that I buy it in bulk. It's like a giant thesaurus of nouns ? what other book will give you three pages of all the different names for kinds of underwear? A marvellous book for anyone who wants to call things by the right names.
The Encyclopedia of Associations:
This multivolume work is one to consult at your local library ? it's very expensive, and updated every year. This is the best source (yes, better than the internet, Virginia) for finding out groups of people with special interests. It's wonderful for just browsing, too. Last time I checked there were groups devoted to armadillos, paper ephemera, and Ladies Opposed to Being Called Women.
The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:
This is where to go to find all the stuff you can't find in dictionaries. When someone makes an allusion that has you saying "Huh?" instead of "Aha!" this is what you turn to. For instance, if someone mentions Abdera, you look it up here and find that it was a city in Ancient Greece famed for the stupidity of its inhabitants. (Then you say "Hey! Wait a minute!")
The Timetables of History:
This book has saved me from the ignominy of being the "B-Minus Time Traveler" many a time. Not sure if two people were contemporaneous, or if Lincoln could have ever seen an Impressionist painting? This is the the place to begin puzzling it out.
The Dictionary of Worldwide Gestures:
This is a rare-ish book, and now that I've pointed it out to all of you I'll NEVER find a cheap copy, but it is really an amazing work. This book, simply put, categorizes gestures from around the world. What does touching your nose signify in Jordan? In Russia? In Guam? I don't know, but if I had my own copy I could tell you right now. This is the kind of reference book that makes you proud to work in reference publishing.
Do you have favorite unusual reference book? Please leave them in the comments!