What Do You Know?
What do we expect to get when we turn to an encyclopedia? Answers, of course.
After all, stemming from Latin and Greek words for "circular" and "general education," the term encyclopedia suggests something that offers a whole circle of knowledge. Thus, a volume that calls itself The Encyclopedia of New England (edited by Bert Feintuch and David H. Watters; Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut; hardcover; 1,564 pages; $65) would seem to be a book designed to provide answers on every aspect of our part of the world — especially if the thing is 1,564 pages long.
Unfortunately, though, if you think Yale University Press' new book of that title will deliver answers only, you are mistaken. Thanks to a quirky, categorical arrangement of entries and uneven editing, this volume raises as many questions as it answers. That is not to say the book is a disaster. There is plenty to fascinate and inform here. It's just a missed opportunity to deliver more concisely and accessibly the ten-year, mammoth body of research and writing that this volume represents.
It is always the duty of any reference book editor to think hard about the users of the product he will produce. Editors must ask themselves not only what questions will be brought to the volume so they can ensure the book will contain answers to those questions. They must also anticipate the expectations readers will bring to the book concerning ease of accessing that information. In this case, University of New Hampshire professors Bert Feintuch and David H. Watters seem more interested in devising a scheme that allows them to deliver flowing prose on topics of interest than to satisfying the student, librarian, or average Joe who just wants easy-to-find, accurate, and authoritative nuggets of information about things associated with the six states — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island — that comprise New England.
In their introduction to the volume, the editors make a case for their approach to the book. (With an eye to putting information in broader contexts, they decided to bring information together under twenty-two categories ranging from Agriculture to Tourism.) While book reviewers and librarians are bound to be fascinated by such explanations, the vast majority of encyclopedia users never peruse such introductory pages. They want to look under "L" for "Lobstering," "S" for "Sea Dogs," and "W" for "Windjammers". When they find those entries, they want organized information that may be used from everything from shoring up a term paper to proving oneself right in a verbal argument.
In this encyclopedia, however, finding a piece of information is not so simple. Even when a term can be found in the index, you are led to a large page where you must hunt for it sometimes in more than one entry — and the mention any term receives may be unpredictable and glancing.
Take for examples, the Boston Herald and the Bay State Banner. While the Boston Globe has its own substantial entry, neither its tabloid competitor nor the newspaper known for addressing African-American news and lifestyle issues merits its own entry. If you wish to learn something about the Boston Herald, you can hunt for it in the index. It will lead you to one line of out-of-date and now incorrect information in an entry headed "Media and Politics" in the encyclopedia's "Politics" section. The Bay State Banner receives no indexed mention at all.
In fact, the encyclopedia's treatment of the press is unusual at best. Yankee magazine receives its own entry, but it is written by the former longtime editor, Judson Hale. While he well knows what the magazine aimed for and largely delivered, his penning this piece hardly represents writing with scholarly distance.
Good luck to anyone who needs to impress a teacher with a variety of facts about the Pine Tree State. In this volume, they will be obliged to do some serious entry-hopping. State history may be found under "Maine" in this book's "History" section. In the "Geography and Environment" section, you will find a piece on "Maine Forest Fires, 1947." To learn more about "Lobstering," you must turn to an entry of that title in the "Maritime New England" category.
Yet another entry titled "Maine" is found in the "Images and Ideas" section. Here we are told, "Depending on your point of view, the state is isolated or secluded, narrow-minded or free-thinking, stubborn or independent, a stern vacationland." It wasn't always this way. The same entry notes Henry David Thoreau's wonderment at 1840s Bangor, a place Thoreau described as "overflowing with the luxuries and refinement of Europe."
There is more-targeted information in a neighboring entry on the "Maine Coon Cat," which, oddly, is also placed in the category "Images and Ideas." In fact, this section is chockful of things that don't leap to mind as belonging to that category. Here, entries on "Andre the Seal," "Doughnuts," "Candy," and "Cookies" keep company with more idea-centered entries on "Down East" (the term, with this magazine mentioned in context), "Banned in Boston," "Frugality," and "Yankees" (the New England type, not the New York team). If you're going to organize a volume into thematic categories, for heaven's sake, have them make sense.
Even among entries that should deliver a standard type of information, this book is inconsistent. While the "Pequot" entry, written by Robert Goodby, should be applauded for delivering in limited space numerous fascinating facts about the tribe, its history, and culture, a similar sized entry on the "Penobscot" by Nancy Johnson Black begins in the present and jumps around through that people's history in an unnecessarily disorganized manner. Interestingly, Black does better in her entry on the "Passamaquoddy," causing the reader to wonder why the encyclopedia's editors did not hold Black to similar standards for both contributions.
Even with all this said, The Encyclopedia of New England is still worth a look, if you're not under deadline for a term paper and you like a leisurely hunt for good curiosities.
A former Harvard University reference librarian, Rosemary Herbert is co-editor, with Tony Hillerman, of A New Omnibus of Crime, and editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing.