Best Reference Books 2023

Reference works contain entire worlds, arranged, indexed, and designed to support research and exploration. These aids—hefty both in physical form and in depth and resonance—provide new interpretations, offer access into decades of academic work, and foster fresh ways of thinking.

Berger, Sidney E. The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary for Book Collectors, Booksellers, Librarians, and Others. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781538151327.

Books get treated like the treasures they are in this wondrous work that details every aspect of book production in combination with historical and artistic gems. This hefty, updated volume gets its value from its expansive coverage of 2,000 book terms, including 700 new entries, arranged alphabetically. More than 200 illustrations, along with a massive list of book clubs and book societies worldwide, boost this title’s worth even more.

Carter, Ruth E. The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, from Do the Right Thing to Black Panther. Chronicle. ISBN 9781797203065.

This is a visual celebration of the brilliant work and the genius mind of Carter, a highly sought-after costume designer and the first Black woman to win two Oscars: for Black Panther in 2019 and for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in 2023. Every page displays original sketches and photos of Carter’s most memorable and dazzling creations. She also demonstrates impressive storytelling skills, incorporating anecdotes from famous filmmakers and actors in a title that wows with its artistry.

Christian, Charles. The Witches Almanac: Sorcerers, Witches, and Magic from Ancient Rome to the Digital Age. Visible Ink. ISBN 9781578597604.

A myth-breaking, in-depth, comprehensive work detailing witchcraft and magic practitioners and alchemists throughout Western societies. What makes this resource remarkable is that it does not sugarcoat how politics and power played a significant role in the treatment of people accused of witchcraft throughout history. Christian accomplishes this by exploring varying perceptions about witches, shifting definitions, and differing acceptance rates that span from ancient Greece and Rome to today’s TikTok-fueled momentum. An exceptional historical source with a magic of its own.

Codling, Stuart (text) & James Mann (photos). Lamborghini 60 Years. Motorbooks: Quarto. ISBN 9780760376591.

From its striking cover to its first-rate photo-filled interior, this slightly oversized book commemorating 60 years of Lamborghini is designed to impress—and it succeeds. There’s extensive coverage of the supercar and how its models evolved throughout the years, but the book also goes beyond that to spotlight the engineers responsible for making and maintaining the car’s reputation for being fast, high-performing, and well-designed with advanced aerodynamic features. There’s also an engaging history lesson about founder Ferruccio Lamborghini and his business sense. Great for browsing, dreaming, and sparking conversations.

Critical Insights: A Raisin in the Sun. Salem. ed. by Peter J. Bailey. ISBN 9781637004289.

A Raisin in the Sun takes center stage in this microscopic examination of the Broadway production and its three film adaptations. Eight scholars contribute 15 insightful essays that detail and honor the work and its legacy. What differentiates this resource from others on the topic is its other core focus: playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who, at age 28, became the first Black woman to have a play—this play—produced on Broadway. Her biographical sketch plus the contributors’ analyses create an essential title worthy of applause.

Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. 2nd ed. IVP Academic. ed. by Scot McKnight. ISBN 9780830817856.

This updated and exceptional title adds new interpretations to Pauline literature, the 13 books of the New Testament that are attributed to Paul the Apostle. Notable scholars contribute 200+ articles that expound on numerous historical and cultural beliefs and viewpoints. Enhancing their scholarship are cross-references to other works and a sweeping bibliography. This edition expands and elevates the conversation about Pauline writings.

Fischer, Neal E. (text) & Iñaki Aliste Lizarralde (illus.). Behind the Screens: Illustrated Floor Plans and Scenes from the Best TV Shows of All Time. Chronicle. ISBN 9781797219431.

Does anyone need to know the precise orientation of Dunder Mifflin desks in The Office? Maybe not, but interior designer/illustrator Lizarralde provides 60 colorful, detailed layouts from 35 shows, accompanied by plot points and occasional trivia from pop-culture enthusiast Fischer. From Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s twin beds to street scenes in Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, CT, to layouts of the apartments from Friends, readers can revisit favorite television locales from a delightfully up-close perspective.

Gale Encyclopedia of Neurological Disorders. 4th ed. Gale. ISBN 9781535875523.

Assembled by nearly 90 health-care professionals and medical writers, this alphabetically arranged resource covers more than 480 neurological disorders, including COVID-related complications. Current and easy to understand, this volume also provides pertinent information about medications and other treatment options, along with preventative measures. The book surpasses other standards in the field by also providing readers with a “Questions To Ask Your Doctor” sidebar for every subject it covers.

Gray, Theodore (text) & Nick Mann (photos). Tools: A Visual Exploration of Implements and Devices in the Workshop. Black Dog & Leventhal. ISBN 9780762498307.

With a table of contents presented as a periodic table of roughly 100 types of tools, this book opens in delight. The tools range from traditional objects (hammers, drills) to the most modern of implements, such as the 3D printer. Every entry gets a two-page spread with a large photograph and an entertaining, often humorous, text chock-full of advice. A maker’s—and browser’s— tool chest of wonder.

Guo, Qian. Food Cultures of China: Recipes, Customs, and Issues. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9781440877827.

Guo approaches the culinary history of China, one of the oldest food cultures in the world, from different angles. The wide view examines evolving trends, influences from abroad, regional variations on popular dishes, historical famines, and issues attributed to the mass-production of food, such as obesity and diabetes. The book includes recipes sprinkled throughout and suggests Chinese dishes, snacks, and drinks to try. A delectable treat that satisfies cravings and curiosity about Chinese cuisine and its history.

Jones, Marie D. & Larry Flaxman. The Afterlife Book: Heaven, Hell, and Life After Death. Visible Ink. ISBN 9781578597611.

Seeking to take the mystery out of what happens after death, Jones and Flaxman look for answers and explanations in science, funeral rites and other death customs, and reports of near-death and paranormal experiences. The book also takes into account the belief systems of religions and cultures worldwide while considering what Socrates, Aquinas, Einstein, skeptics, and others have said about death. Facts intersect with folklore in this probing, provocative publication.

Laney, Lewis (text) & Charlotte MacMillan-Scott (illus.). 365 Gays of the Year (Plus 1 for a Leap Year): Discover LGBTQ+ History One Day at a Time. White Lion. ISBN 9780711273702.

People or groups who have made significant contributions to LGBTQIA+ communities worldwide or who have added to the narratives of positive change are profiled in this outstanding title. There is one selection for each day of the year, and the work is intended to be a compilation, not a ranking. Entries provide brief biographies, illustrative portraits, and insightful explanations about the link between the featured person or group and the date. LGBTQIA+ allies are also mentioned each month. Noteworthy and celebratory.

Marshall, Stephen A. Hymenoptera: The Natural History and Diversity of Wasps, Bees and Ants. Firefly. ISBN 9780228103714.

Readers enter the world of wasps, bees, and ants in this wonderful and lengthy (640-page) guided tour. Packed with thousands of color photographs, the work excels as it explains—with general readers in mind—what is distinctive about the habits and habitats of this order of insects. Marshall dives deep into Hymenoptera history, the variety of species, and the link between people and pollination and offers stories about personal encounters with these creatures as well. Natural history at its finest.

Moody, Liz. 100 Ways To Change Your Life: The Science of Leveling Up Health, Happiness, Relationships & Success. Harper Wave. ISBN 9780063333710.

Highly readable cover-to-cover or in bite-sized chunks, Moody’s accessible work offers customizable, science-backed tips to improve readers’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being. The author’s feasible advice comes after years of interviewing leading scientists, doctors, and other experts about these subjects. This isn’t just a fun read that has the potential to change mindsets and wellness approaches; it’s an action plan to help readers live their best lives.

Pahsetopah, Mike. Talking with Hands: Everything You Need To Start Signing Native American Hand Talk. Wellfleet. ISBN 9781577153665.

Pahsetopah, who is of Osage, Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, and Yuchi heritage, succeeds in his mission to preserve and revitalize Hand Talk or Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). Before colonists arrived in the Americas, whenever Indigenous peoples encountered a tribe that spoke a different language, they communicated with their hands. This type of sign language became endangered, however, when government-run boarding schools forbade Indigenous children from utilizing it and speaking their own languages. With 200+ clear photos of Pahsetopah demonstrating PISL fundamentals, this momentous work teaches so much more than communication.

Rinke, Stefan. Conquistadors and Aztecs: A History of the Fall of Tenochtitlan. Oxford Univ. ISBN 9780197552469.

Written by a leading scholar of Latin American history, this gripping book provides a new examination of how the Spanish Conquest unfolded. Gleaned from both Indigenous and Spanish sources, this title posits that Hernán Cortés, a colonist and commander of the conquistadors, was able to successfully attack the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan because of alliances with Indigenous adversaries of the Aztecs. Diseases, like smallpox, brought from Europe killed hundreds of thousands of locals too.

Rossi, Milo. The Encyclopedia of the Weird and Wonderful: Curious and Incredible Facts That Will Blow Your Mind. Wellfleet. ISBN 9781577153412.

This fascinating work is aptly titled. From baby toys to radiocarbon-dating methods, it highlights human development by way of objects, traditions, and cultural customs. Organized by the distinct phases and aspects of daily life, the work includes more than 90 stories about everything from childhood to death and many aspects in between, such as love, friendships, and health. The scope is expansive too; it ranges from prehistorical times to the early aughts. Fantastic, fun, and funny.

Roy, Keidrick & others. Smithsonian America: The Atlas. Thunder Bay. ISBN 9781645178422.

With contributions from seven historians, this book includes more than 400 maps, photographs, posters, paintings, engravings and infographics, along with sensitively worded explorations of events and migrations in the Americas. Arranged chronologically, it focuses on what is now the United States but also covers Canada, Mexico and Central America from prehistory to the present. Thoughtful text explains how the Americas have changed over time, including actions that benefited one population and harmed another.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Women Warriors in History. McFarland. ISBN 9781476693057.

Women warriors get the attention and recognition they deserve in this refreshing resource that is filled with profiles and narratives often missing from history books. The work includes more than 1,600 biographies of women—from Bronze Age archers and the Old Testament judge Deborah to aircraft commanders and pilots and Julia Child—who have defended themselves and taken a stance against threats to their careers and lives. A wonderfully detailed look at pivotal and pioneering women.

Swain, Joseph P. Historical Dictionary of Baroque Music. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781538151617.

One hundred new entries have been added to the latest edition of this book about baroque music, a Western tradition that dates from 1600 to 1750. Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi are but a few of the famous baroque figures. This book’s fresh content expands historical details and sources, increases the number of composers, and features more compositions. Technical terms, locales, and instruments are included in the extensive dictionary section of more than 500 cross-referenced entries. It is an incredible production on a specific sound, and era, of music.

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