An early highlight of this fully revised millennium edition of Brewer’s is Terry Pratchett’s short, sweetly ironic preface. It’s entirely appropriate, given Brewer’s has been the bread-and-butter of curious, self-educated working men and women for 130 years, and that this decade’s great demotic writer should be invited to watch the dust settle on yet another deposit of curious knowledge. (“It’s an education in itself, seeing [the Fab Four] take their place with old Roman senators and mythological fauna … “).
Brewer’s is famously, fabulously useless. There is not the remotest possibility that it contains anything you might actually be looking up at the time. In this, it closely resembles that great modern intellectual irritant, the World Wide Web. Where it bests the upstart Web is in its wit, its erudition and in its disposability. Mind you, frustrated users should wield the new edition with caution. Adrian Room has introduced French jargon, inkhorn literary terms and many more historical and fictional characters to the familiar “alms-basket of words”.
But it is through the number of extra phrases and quotations that Room truly distinguishes this edition–and who can resist passages of verse like the one which accompanies a new entry for Technogamia, a 1618 play of such mind-crushing tediousness that James I “made several efforts to leave after sitting out the first two acts”? By complete contrast, there’s never a dull moment to be had with this great, daft, pointless, wonderful brick of a book. –Simon Ings