books, generic
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Are you one of those people who cannot resist the temptation of a reference book? You may not need it, maybe you can’t even afford it, and you have no idea if you will ever make use of all the information in it … but … the big but …

… It looks so interesting.

… And you never know when you may be quizzed and have to answer some obscure “reference to context”.

… Or, suppose one day you or someone in the family need to look up just this branch of knowledge, be it geography or literature or language or archaeology, then it is right there in front of you in print, isn’t it?

So, you reach out and get that book and tuck it away among all the other reference books and maps and atlases you possess, all to be used “one day”.

It has been like that with us and through the years, it seems that we have acquired dozens of such books: The Dictionary of Quotations, The Dictionary of Geography (another on Dinosaurs, another on Archaeology, another on …), a book of anagrams, another on the origins of words and phrases … The list is endless and the cupboards are overflowing and from time to time we even consider tossing the whole lot out, unopened and unreferenced.

It is not that we never need the information in our collection of reference books. It is just that when we needed it in the past, we could never find the relevant book at the given moment for who could possibly trace anything in those closely and randomly stacked shelves, and we just asked someone more knowledgeable than us; and now, with the amount of information available online, we can get exactly what we need without having to ransack cupboards, then search various tables of contents or indexes at the back of those books.

However, now that we do not really need these hoarded books, sometimes in moments of leisure, we open one on any page and go back to the beginnings of words and phrases like “tawdry” or “the bitter end” or “freelance” or “to spill the beans” or “to give the cold shoulder” or we flip through some of George Bernard Shaw’s witticisms: “Do not do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

Then again, there are the comforting words I heard often in an paraphrased form when I was newly employed and had to live down my daily errors that had all of us stay late until the day’s account books were tallied: “The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.” (E.J. Phelps)

Today it seems the height of luxury to be able to flick through reference books without any purpose, not because I desperately need the right usage or the right idiom or wish to refer to the right location of something, but just out of interest and because I have the free time to do it!

And what is best, what is pure gold for those of us who are constantly trying — and constantly failing — to be better people than what we were the previous day, is to chance upon the maxims of Duc De La Rochefoucauld from three-and-a-half centuries ago.

Because, if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot help but nod in agreement and understand exactly what is meant when he states, “Quarrels would not last so long if the fault were on only one side,” or “Most usually our virtues are only vices in disguise,” or “We seldom attribute common sense except to those who agree with us.”

Oh, to remember these explanations and maxims when the time is right — or when we think we are right and everyone else is wrong!

— Cheryl Rao is a writer based in India