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the complete review - reference
Liam Rodger, et al.
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- Ninth edition (2011)
- With a Foreword by Joan Bakewell
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(--) : quite well done; quite useful (even in the Internet-age)
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Chambers Biographical Dictionary is meant to be a go-to reference work of biography, offering concise information about a wide variety of public figures, both historical and contemporary.
Now having to compete with the likes of Wikipedia and Google-search, it's a tall order: obviously the near-infinite space of the Internet allows for more detail (if not necessarily ready or reliable authority) as well as information about a far greater number of people.
To nevertheless be of continued value, a printed reference work must be both reliable and sufficiently extensive, and the Chambers Biographical Dictionary fares quite well on both counts.
Entries are arranged in two columns on each page, with about ten or a dozen entries per page, the vast majority of entries covered in perhaps a dozen lines.
The person's full name, year of birth and death, and one-sentence career-summary ("US physicist and Nobel Prize winner") precede the entry proper, which generally begins with place of birth, and then provides a short education- or career-summary, and most notable achievements and/or publications; frequently, a single book -- a biography or critical study -- is cited at the end as reference work about the person in question.
Difficult though it is to condense a life (and, often, list of works) into such limited space, the entries for the most part do quite a good job of providing a reasonably good snapshot -- with a touch of commentary -- of the people in question; for the very large most part these are quite thoughtful potted biographies.
Where necessary, more room is taken: Graham Greene's entry extends over fifty lines, while a considerable number of personalities merit larger separate entries that are printed in boxes and cover the entire width of the page (rather than the two-column presentation of the rest).
These aren't all the most significant personalities -- and occasionally the entries are shorter than, for example, the Greene one (sculptor Barbara Hepworth, for example on both counts) -- but the big guns do get their space: Jesus merits three-quarters of a page, Hitler a full one, and Shakespeare two (although much of one is taken up by a generously-spaced list of his plays).
The 1663-page volume offers biographies of over 18,000 people -- but is that an adequate (or excessive number) ?
It's hard to judge -- and also depends on what folk folks are interested in.
Still, entirely subjective random testing suggests a surprisingly good and cross-cultural reach.
While there's an obvious British slant here, the volume is good not only on international rulers and thinkers but sportsmen and artists as well.
There are some surprising misses -- American readers in 2012 will wonder why Richard von Mises makes the cut while his older brother Ludwig van Mises doesn't -- but overall the calls are much closer.
Suggesting some of the philosophy (and strengths and weakness) behind the selections, consider a sampling of the hits and misses:
- Roberto Bolaño is a major miss for a volume that is otherwise very up-to-date (and one that includes, say, Roberto Arlt -- though overall the volume is on much surer footing with the (long(er)) dead than living)
- Nobel laureates Jelinek and Fo make the cut (as does Tomas Tranströmer, though he only got his prize after this edition went to press); Herta Müller does not. (On the other hand: football- (soccer-)great Gerd Müller does)
- Thomas Bernhard doesn't make the cut; Peter Handke does
- Harry Mulisch doesn't make the cut; Per Olov Enquist does
Other authors who don't make the cut (but obviously should) include: Georges Perec, Stanisław Lem, Arno Schmidt, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, and Álvaro Mutis.
On the other hand, the Chambers Biographical Dictionary does include authors from Juan Goytisolo (a very solid entry) to Michel Houellebecq, Kiran Desai (and mom Anita, too) and Will Self -- as well as even the likes of Dave Eggers (but not, for example, Jonathan Safran Foer).
Contemporary English-language literature is well-covered, and most significant personalities from earlier in the twentieth century (and before) are also covered, from Alfred Döblin and Hermann Broch (but, again: no Arno Schmidt or Thomas Bernhard ...) to, say, Multatuli, Mór Jókai, Zinaida Gippius, and Sergei Aksakov.
In other categories: Charlize Theron makes the cut, Natalie Portman doesn't; Brad Pitt makes the cut, Angelina Jolie doesn't; Daniel Dennett makes the cut, Richard Posner doesn't; Andrea Dworkin makes the cut, Richard Dworkin doesn't; T.S.Kuhn makes the cut, Paul Feyerabend doesn't; both Oliver Wendell Holmess do.
Contemporary sports figures are well-covered -- and not just in the sports popular in or peculiar to Britain (football, cricket, motorracing, etc.).
There are athletes from sports that are practically only known to and of interest to Americans (US footballers such as Brett Favre and Dan Marino, as well as a handful of baseball players), as well as winter sports figures (e.g. Vreni Schneider, Matti Nykänen).
A nice touch also has them include several musical groups -- not just the Beatles and Pink Floyd, for example, but also ... Kraftwerk.
On the whole, it's a solid selection.
Entries do not offer the fill of information available on the Internet -- but also not the dross, succinctly presenting the essentials.
The information is clearly quite carefully compiled -- no obvious errors were immediately apparent, or upon closer inspection -- and this reliability is certainly welcome, making the Chambers Biographical Dictionary a useful basic research tool, and starting (and reference) point for more detailed online searches.
It seems like a handy thing to have, though as the transition to online research continues apace it's unclear whether current and coming generations will still be able to work in any meaningful ways with such works.
For now, however, -- and maybe for one or two more editions -- it can certainly be recommended.
- M.A.Orthofer, 3 January 2012
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Chambers Biographical Dictionary:
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© 2012 the complete review
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