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The New York Public Library Desk Reference: Fourth Edition    Editor Paul Fargis order for
New York Public Library Desk Reference
by Paul Fargis
Order:  USA  Can
Hyperion, 2002 (2002)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is the fourth edition of the highly successful New York Public Library Desk Reference, which apparently has over 1,000,000 copies in print. Considering that it's a hefty tome, that's a ton of paper! It's the sort of book that is fun to open at random, just to see what new and fascinating factoid you stumble upon, but it's also well organized and indexed for specific searches at home, school or library.

So what is inside? There are six sections: The Physical World, The World of Ideas, The Way We Communicate, Daily Life, Recreation, and The Political World. We are told that in them are answers to the most commonly sought information in the New York Library's collection of fifty million items. Dipping in, I found all sorts of quirky facts (which I especially enjoy) as well as the more mundane information that one seeks on a regular basis.

In The Physical World, I quickly found out where the term 'red letter day' comes from; was surprised to discover that dolphins' double brains allow them to sleep while awake; noted that I could look up solar and lunar eclipses up to the year 2020; and read why tropical storms get people names. There are also excellent graphics of the human skeleton, invention timelines, the periodic table, and much more such useful stuff.

The World of Ideas tells us which composer first had a work performed in space, and that car horns and houseflies both beep in the key F (bet you really needed to know that!). It includes a history of film and Academy Awards; and provides succinct summaries of the life and work of major artists and architects around the world. A section on Literature covers authors, literary movements, awards, and a reading list of The Great Books and Books of the Century. Next comes Philosophy and its movements, where I soon found familiar quotes; and a chapter on Libraries and Museums in N. America, with a section on genealogical research.

The Way We Communicate begins with Symbols and Signs in different fields, from mathematics to Morse code. I can see a use for Common Crossword-Puzzle Words and Acceptable Two-Letter Scrabble Words. And did you know (or want to know) that all 9 ways to pronounce 'ough' are in 'A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.' Now if they only told me who made that one up! There is a handy section on grammar, and on punctuation (with a note that the ancient Greeks didn't bother), and a useful section on letter formats and forms of address.

Daily Life's Etiquette coverage includes Netiquette; and its First Aid section lists what should be in a kit, something I've tended to fill by guess and by golly, and describes the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. On a lighter note, did you know that the Etruscans made false teeth? There is a useful checklist of questions to ask your doctor, information on the shelf life of medicine, and a handy chart on food sources for vitamins and minerals. Food substitutions in recipes look awfully useful, including low fat alternatives for ingredients. Chemical additives in food are worth a study, as are chapters on Personal Finances and Legal Information.

Recreation covers both Sports and Games and Travel. In the former can be found everything you ever wanted to know about sports from Auto Racing to Volleyball and Olympic Games. Travel has useful charts on when to visit different parks and wildlife centers, and their animal highlights. The Political World is split between the United States and the rest of the world, with a historical timeline, information on care and use of the flag, and a zip codes listing as well as the Constitution and Amendments, Presidents and so on. The section on the rest of the world has countries, conflicts, timelines of major events and exploration, and the Seven Wonders of the ancient world (which I can never remember) plus a color atlas.

Why do we still need tomes like this with the Internet and all its resources at our fingertips? Don't know about you but when I search the net, I usually find that information is more detailed and in much more depth than I want or need, and I keep wishing for a summary - and, of course, there is also the question of information reliability. I plan to use The New York Public Library Desk Reference for its succinct answers when the kids come with homework questions, or I have a nagging health concern, or want to prove that 'xu' really is a valid Scrabble word. It's a remarkable resource, not just for librarians!

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