The Times Literary Supplement of 22 July, 2016 holds forth on Companions and Handbooks — basically edited collections of essays on some more or less coherent theme.

“Like ‘Companion’, ‘Handbook’ is a term that cleverly suggests usefulness but is careful to make no promise of being either comprehensive or even, within a narrower field, systematic. The absence it points to is that of the near-extinct megafauna of reference publishing forms, the single-subject encyclopedia, which could have encompassed a thousand extended essays rather than just fifty to deliver something both comprehensive and systematic. Wikipedia is only one reason for its disappearance, though it is still far from matching the depth and range of coverage that used to be found in such works. More fundamental is the demand for unrealistic levels of profitability and shorter return times by shareholders who would just as happily invest in pork futures. Handbooks and Companions are simply the best substitutes publishers could, within their limited powers, devise, sad mourners huddled around the graveside of the big beast.”

Well, there’s a lot to argue with in that paragraph; or more efficiently not much to agree with. We are not “sad mourners” huddled around any grave. There is no grave. The encyclopedia, far from being near extinct has in fact, undergone an evolution and has sprouted wings, taking to the air, and is now flitting about happily somewhere in the cloud. Encyclopedias are still being created; it’s true they probably won’t be printed in future, but they are providing masses of data for the on-line researcher. These resources may mostly be hidden behind paywalls, but many of your libraries may have access. It’s only fair to blame Wikipedia to the extent that Wikipedia typifies the world of on-line reference. But it’s not Wikipedia’s fault that we don’t print encyclopedias any more: Wikipedia is merely another manifestation of the same phenomenon.

Now whether The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming, the subject of the TLS review, is really a frustrated Encyclopedia of Onomastics is to be doubted. Those multi-volume encyclopedias used to deal with subjects a bit wider than onomastics: say Linguistics or even Applied Linguistics. The Oxford Handbooks is an informal series, as too is The Oxford Companions. I have no idea how much discussion there is in Walton Street as to what constitutes the distinction between them, but I can report that the OED defines “companion” in this sense as “A handbook or reference book on a specific subject” which really makes the difference clear! The OUP website tells us “Oxford Companions combine the functionality of a subject dictionary with the breadth and scope of an encyclopedia. Their lively, accessible, and informative style makes them readable and entertaining”, which seems to confuse the issue rather than clarify. To my mind a Handbook is liable to be more of a potted collection of factual pieces for the undergraduate, whereas a Companion suggests more of an impressionistic background resource. You might be expected to read a Companion and to refer to a Handbook: but of course there’s really no hard and fast boundary between them. I imagine my uncle settling down before a nice fire picking up his Companion to Dickens and enjoying an essay on Dickens’ techniques of naming characters, or his reading tours, or his theatrical proclivities.

And who are these investors, greedy for returns? Oxford University Press is blessed not to have shareholders and I don’t believe the University would recognize itself in this characterisation, but even publishers who do have them would never think their investors as being inclined “to just as happily invest in pork futures”. Any investor with a wish “for unrealistic levels of profitability and shorter return times” is not likely to be investing in book publishing in the first place. Our profits are unfortunately only too “realistic” and rather long term.