Anyone who loves reading knows the pleasure of casually looking up the odd word or fact in the dictionary or encyclopedia. There’s a certain gratification in learning that “agerasia” refers to “the non-appearance of the signs of age,” or that the word “self,” which originally meant “same,” only recently replaced “soul” as the most common noun for personhood in English, or that the tallest person ever recorded measured 8 feet 11.1 inches tall.

As Jack Lynch shows in You Could Look It Up, a history of fifty reference works from The Code of Hammurabi to Wikipedia, it’s equally entertaining to learn about the writers and editors who went to great lengths to collect and distill these facts—some greater than others.

Pliny the Elder had manuscripts read to him day and...


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