"There are two things John and I always do
when we're going to sit down and write a song.
First of all we sit down. Then we
think about writing a song."
-Paul McCartney

The meaning of ref.er.ence
We all know how dry reference books can be. It can be a challenge finding one that relays the information you want in an interesting enough style to hold your attention. Also, the more interesting it's presented, the better chance you, as the reader, have of retaining it. With that in mind, we're introducing a rating system for reference books we'll call the "wet scale." On a scale of half a drop to four, half being the driest and four the wettest, we'll assign drops to the title accordingly. Think of it as the star-rating system in water drops for reference books.

The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants
edited by Christopher Brickell and H. Marc Cathey
DK Publishing, 2004
ISBN: 0-77566-0616-0
$80.00, 1103 pp

Introduction to Botany
The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants is a mammoth book. Brickell and Cathey have done an outstanding job gathering all the information a gardener is likely to want on plants - some 15,000 of them - into one place. The descriptions are thorough and include information on growing patterns, leaf structure, soil and watering preference, planting instructions, Latin names, and there are photographs galore. A thorough glossary of terms is included, alongside a visual glossary of leaves and flowers most gardeners will find helpful. Tucked in the back pages of the book - indeed as far back as one can get - is the most detailed plant heat-zone map of the United States you may ever lay your eyes on.

Unfortunately, for all this encyclopedia has going for it, it lacks the primary ingredient that would make it a great reference book: soul.

    All parts of a flower arise from the enlarged or elongated tip of a stem (the receptacle). Most flowers consist of a whorl of colorful petals (the corolla), surrounded by an outer whorl of leaf-like, often green sepals (the calyx). In most monocoryledons, the sepals look like the petals, and the two alternate around the rim of the flower; both are then known as tepals (or perianth segments in some genera).

That's an accurate description of flowers, even if it is in wonkish terms. But the reader shouldn't be required a dictionary and bottle of No-Doze just to get through the basic description of a flower. Technical to a fault, The A-Z Encyclopedia only merits two and a half drops, but we gave it three because you can't say it isn't thorough.

Gardening For Everyone
edited by Roger Grounds
Westport Publishers, 1978
$1.98, 320 pp

Flash doesn't always make or break a reference book. Roger Grounds, the editor of Gardening For Everyone, apparently knew this, as there's not a picture one between the covers. What it lacks in flash, though, it more than makes up for in plain conversational gardening instructions. Make no mistake; this is a book about gardening, not plants. It begins with a pholosophical bit about the modern garden, then rolls up its sleeves and digs right in to various garden designs of all varieties and sizes. Covered designs are: rock gardens, labor saving gardens, lawns - yes, LAWNS, with a gardener's approach - rose gardens, herbaceous beds, water gardens, bogs, greenhouses and vegetable gardens. Whatever a sites challenges - shade, poor soil, wet, dry - there's a garden to accommodate it. Nevermind that it was published in 1978 (it dates itself in the chapter on terrariums - yes, TERRARIUMS), the sound, chemical-free garden advice offered has no expiration date. Worth scouring a used bookstore for.

An Instant Guide to Birds
by Mike Lambert and Alan Pearson
Crescent Books, 1985
ISBN: 0-517-46891-3
$3.99, 128 pp

Ornithology 101
An Instant Guide to Birds - like other titles in the Instant Guide series - delivers, to a point. In a nutshell, it's simple, concise, easy to use and aesthetically pleasing. A thin book, it's surprising how much information the authors are able to squeeze into it. Nearly 200 of the most common North American bird species are covered (most with full-color illustrations of both male and female), with detailed information on markings, calls, seed preference and any peculiar standout behavior. That said, where this guide falls short is its often vague assessment of species habitat. "Feeding wherever weeds provide seeds," hardly narrows down the habitat to a region, let alone specific terrain. Also, the birds are divided up along four broad categories: Birds of Town, Birds of Country, Birds of Water, and Less Common Species. Helpful categories, but if you're in Boston you don't want to spend your time looking for a Bird of Town you're only likely to lay eyes on in California. That cost them a full drop.

The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words From Around the World
by Adam Jacot de Boinod
The Penguin Press, 2006
ISBN: 1-59420-086-6
$19.95, 209 pp

Language Arts
Language is a reflection of culture. It's easy to forget that in these multi-cultural times where not only do we absorb the customs of other cultures, we meld their languages with our own. Adam Jacot de Boinod is a linguist - if not by trade, by design. According to the jacket cover, it all started when he picked up an Albanian dictionary and discovered there were no fewer than twenty-seven words for eyebrow and the same number for mustache. His obsession for words - especially words significant to specific cultures - was born, and fortunately for us, The Meaning of Tingo its culmination.

Jacot de Boinod appreciates the turn of a term

like a poet the turn of a phrase.

Jacot de Boinod appreciates the turn of a term like a poet the turn of a phrase. He finds glee in oddities - of which there seemingly are no end - in human language. The book is laid out somewhat like a dictionary, with terms and their meanings grouped under headings that are supposed to give us a clue as to why they belong together. Some hit the mark, while others leave you guessing.

Under the heading Married in a Brothel, for instance, are words extracted from various languages that have double opposite meanings. For example, aloha (Hawaiian) meaning hello and goodbye. Other words in this category are irpadake (Tulu, India) ripe and unripe, merripen (Romani, Gypsy) life and death, and danh t (Vietnamese) a church and a brothel (now the heading makes sense). These are words one has to live with on a daily basis in order to decipher their contextual differences. The word dust in the English language is like that; it can mean both the removal and application of dust.

The Chinese we know drink a lot of tea, so it should come as no surprise that there is a Chinese calendar based on the cultivation and preparation of it. The calendar consists of twenty-four months and the names of each month reference processes to the cultivation and preparation of the prized commodity. And it shouldn't be surprising that The Micmac Indians - whose culture was tied very closely to the natural world - have names for their months that refer to what is or should be happening around them (birds laying, frogs croaking, etc.).

On a more sober note, the author reminds us that it's not just words that change over time. Like the endangered creatures of our planet, entire languages too go extinct, and at an alarming rate. On average, languages fall out of use - destined for the proverbial linguistic dust bin - one every fortnight. That fact makes Tingo more than just an entertaining read. It lends Jacot de Boinod's accomplishment significance it otherwise would not have. It gives it meaning. We give it four drops.

posted 04/21/13