Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The theme for today's reference books is: California. Because Better Half and I are going there next week for our vacation, and because we have a couple of cool, underutilized books in the collection (as well as the usual Lonely Planets and Moon guides, which are useful but not really exciting.)

A Companion to California
James D. Hart, University of California Press, 1987

"This work is intended as a useful companion for anybody interested in general or basic knowledge about any aspect of the most populous tate in the Union." So says James Hart in the introduction, and so delivers the book. It's sturdy and thick, suitable for summarily crushing your opponent in any contest over the question of how many carrots are grown in the state (36,000 acres' worth, in 1982.)

The entries are arranged in a single alphabetical list, encompassing everything from Death Valley to Ronald Reagan, and dipping into such obscure byways as "Canadians in California." As in any encyclopedia, there's some capriciousness to the choice of entries. Why, for instance, is there no entry for Clint Eastwood, who is a California native and who has devoted much of his professional and political life to the town of Carmel? Why is there no entry for the movie Blade Runner? Why, most importantly, is there no index? (Although there is a chronology of the state's history in the back of the book.)

This one offers the basics, but not much more. And a lot of the basic information is out of date now, given that this was published in 1987. I don't see a newer edition in WorldCat, but we're probably due for one.

Historic Spots in California
Mildred Brooke Hoover, Hero Eugene Rensch, Ethel Grace Rensch, Rev. by William N. Abeloe
Stanford University Press, 1966

This is the third edition of a book that was first published in 1932, and I'm not sure why it's the one we have in the reference section, since there's a fourth edition in our stacks. Anyway, it's an interesting handbook for someone who wants to spend some time thumbing through the history of the state.

I like the arrangement of this book, which makes it easy to find what you're looking for. There's a map of the state with the counties clearly delineated on the inside cover, and the book itself is arranged alphabetically, by county. If you're driving down the coast (hypothetically), you can clearly see which counties you'll pass through, then read a few pages about the county by flipping through to that section of the book. If you're interested in areas smaller than counties (i.e., Angel Island, etc.), you can find them in the index in the back.

The history here is written generously and with obvious interest (which it isn't in the Companion, above.) I turned to the section about the Farallon Islands (San Francisco County), which are fascinating to me because they're swarmed by great white shark every autumn. There's a great little squib about the discovery of the islands, the rookeries of the sea birds that lived there, and the egg trade that used to thrive off the rookeries. Nothing about sharks, but I realize my interests aren't universal.

If I had to choose a source for answering quick, cut-and-dried factual questions about the state, I'd choose the Companion.

If I wanted to read some brief local history snippets, I'd choose Historic Spots.


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