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Waiting for the Oxford Companion to the Oxford Companions

You have any idea how many books Oxford University Press published in its “companion” series before it got around to beer?

A lot. Heck, The Oxford Companion to the Brontës is 640 pages. There’s The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television and The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (1272 pages, but “the only book on the Supreme Court that a layman should ever need.”)

Most of the books that are part of the franchise must have been more popular when they were new, because it appears these days that beyond the top two on the list none of them outperforms the 100th best selling beer entry (Clone Brews, at this moment) on Amazon.

Those top two, of course, are the shiny, new The Oxford Companion to Beer and the third edition to The Companion to Wine, still selling briskly five years after it was published. I think we all expect the Beer Companion will have the same sort of legs, but that’s a topic for another day.

I own the wine book and recall the excitement within the wine blogosphere when it was released in 2006 (plus that Costco stocked a bunch as a price that beat Amazon). I occasionally hoist it off the shelf — either when I have a particular question or feel in need of exercise, given that it weighs half again as much as the hefty beer book — and I never think to question what I find. I certainly don’t remember it being scrutinized the same way as the Beer Companion.1

So I asked a few wine bloggers if I missed something. Mike Veseth, author of Wine Wars, wrote back:

I cannot remember any sharp criticisms when the Oxford Companion to Wine appeared. Certainly the release of the current edition was celebrated, not criticized. I suspect that this is because the OCW project is well established and has set the standard for comprehensive wine books.

I asked Jancis Robinson (editor of OCW) what she thought and she replied that, while there were no harsh critiques when the OCW was first released in 1994, she thinks there would be some today just because the times are different — more bloggers and social media forums where opinions are shared.

Yep, the Netscape browser was brand new in 1994 and Amazon didn’t exist. Nor did Rate Beer or Beer Advocate or any of the blogs on the right. But I’m still trying to figure out if that explains the all that has already been written about the Beer Companion.

Are the errors that grievous? Is it that those who really care about beer (and the facts related to beer) care than much more? Is beer (and beer history) that complicated, subjective to interpretation, lost in the ether?

As I was typing this post Alan McLeod added Garrett Oliver’s comments to OCBeerCommentary, and then Simon Johnson’s thoughtful conclusions popped up in my feed reader. (Yes, two Simon Johnson links inside of a week; no more, I promise.)

Go read them, because so far I’m long questions and short answers.

1 OCBeerCommentary provides both links to what has been written about the Beer Companion (see “general comments”) and comments that generally identify errata.

11 Responses to Waiting for the Oxford Companion to the Oxford Companions

  1. Erik October 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

    Is this you? It is from what Oliver wrote at OCBeerCommentary.

    I have read posts by some writers, who were among the very few who rejected assignments, who have said that they were annoyed at the tiny remuneration offered to them by OUP. One very prominent beer writer said to me, right to my face, “I wouldn’t take a sh*t for that kind of money.” Okay, well, fortunately, I had not asked him to. His own book will be out soon, and I hope it provides him the money he requires.

  2. Stan Hieronymus October 24, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    Nope. “Very prominent” should have been a dead giveaway.

  3. Simon Johnson October 25, 2011 at 12:23 am #

    Don’t worry. I’m all out of cogent stuff for this week. It’s back to the drunken ramblings and knob gags from now on.

    The very fact that we have OCBeerCommentary ought to be seen as a massive endorsement of how inclusive and healthy the debate on beer can become. As long as we don’t end up debating the finer points of Anglo-Saxon settlement along the way. For that, we need to stick Martyn Cornell and Garret Oliver into a phone booth with Bill and Ted. Not sure even I’d stump up to see that one at the cinema.

  4. Bailey October 25, 2011 at 6:37 am #

    Martyn and Garrett’s Bogus History?

  5. Steve October 25, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    Has Martyn seen the push-back yet?

  6. Jeff Alworth October 25, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    I think there’s a very big difference between beer and wine–both the industries and the scholarship thereof. Wine has gone through many of the same changes beer has since the “artisanal revolution” of the 1980s, when Americans abandoned their Annie Green Springs for well-made varietals. But in one very key way, it’s apples and oranges. Even with changes, wine’s lineages over the centuries have been far clearer, more well-documented, and more intact. The idea of “good wine” wasn’t invented in 1977. As a consequence, the scholarship about wine has been building on a far broader base for a lot longer.

    Beer, on the other hand, is a fragmented business, and styles morph every generation. It’s a commoner’s drink and not well-documented. The lineages that connect modern examples to historic ones are, where they exist at all, generally rife with unnoticed change. People have been writing about beer for a long time, but the advent of a serious discipline devoted to the science and history of beer is still in its nascent phase.

    The consequence is that OCB was necessarily going to be a different beast than OCW. At its conception OCB stood at a fork in the road: collect together the best (and sometimes less-than-best) scholarship of the day into one volume or spend years doing the scholarship to make OCB the accurate, definitive guide that exists nowhere, even in parts, right now.

    By choosing the first option, OCB has become a first draft of scholarship. It gives people a place to start, but in too many cases, a little digging reveals that it’s nowhere near where they need to end up.

  7. Bailey October 25, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    Steve — Martyn’s responded in some detail in the comments at Alan’s blog.

  8. Greg October 25, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    I’ve followed all this discussion with interest, as I work in an academic library. I would guess that most of the books don’t rank highly on Amazon as libraries have been the major buyer of these books. The series is sold as an entry point to a topic and librarians will suggest such a book as a starting point for researching the Brontes or the Supreme Court. Jeff’s last sentence sums up the entire series: It gives people a place to start, but in too many cases, a little digging reveals that it’s nowhere near where they need to end up. Perhaps the layman only needs the Supreme Court Companion, but I would never suggest a scholar start and finish there.

  9. Zac October 26, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    It’s been an interesting debate to watch. I’ve wondered the same thing about wine drinkers. Jeff’s point makes a ton of sense. Of course, I really think this all could be settled over a pint.

  10. Mike October 27, 2011 at 8:16 am #

    Jeff, while you make some good and interesting points, I think what you have written is probably more true about the US than in Europe. For example, you wrote that beer is not well-documented. However, as Martyn and Ron have demonstrated there are literally thousands of brewing records going back about 200 years still in existence in the UK and some other countries. I’d certainly call that well documented.

  11. Leigh November 2, 2011 at 2:14 am #

    Yep; this is never going to end. Even 2nd Edition will be raked over.

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