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Historian's compendium becomes mass-market hit

Did Kenneth Jackson, editor of The Encyclopedia of New York, foresee that his book would attract a phenomenal amount of attention and break sales records in local bookstores? "I knew that it would be an important book and that it would be popular," says Jackson, professor and chair of the history department at Columbia. What surprises him most is that it's often treated as a news feature, not just an item for the book review section.

The Encyclopedia has been written up in dozens of publications; it's been depicted on the covers of Manhattan Spirit, The Riverdale Press, the Bronx section of the New York Daily News, and The Chronicle of Higher Education--not to mention the New York Times Magazine and Book Review and the New York Review of Books. The book has attracted attention as far away as Memphis, Los Angeles, Kyoto, and London, where five periodicals have covered it, including the Times Literary Supplement. Says Jackson: "There are so many people who feel that they're New Yorkers, even though they only may have lived here for a year or two. They feel that New York has left its stamp on them, and they're proud of their association even though they now live in Las Vegas or Miami or Los Angeles."

Most reviewers have started off with comments on the volume's hefty stats (7 pounds, 6 ounces; 1,350 pages; 4,300 entries; list price, $60) and the "Herculean" audacity of the project (13 years in the making, 680 contributors, 100 editors of all sorts, a million-dollar budget, and 700,000 words pared from the 2 million submitted). Many cite the Encyclopedia's impressive lists--such as four pages of titles of songs celebrating New York or a table of presidential election returns for each candidate, borough by borough, from 1836 through 1992--as evidence of how thoroughly Jackson and his collaborators have researched their subjects.

Press accounts typically include a section on favorite found facts and features. New Yorkers are often particularly pleased to find a nice little entry on "hard-boiledness," describing that quintessential quality and some of its history. Perhaps because it offers a parable of NYCentricity, reviewers are also fond of citing an anecdote found in the article on Leon Trotsky, who lived briefly in the city: When he left to join the upheaval at home, the Bronx Home News announced, "Bronx Man Leads Russian Revolution."

Susan Reynolds for the L.A. Times discovers with some glee that "Gotham" is Anglo-Saxon for "goat town"; she observes that Washington Irving used the term satirically "to suggest a city of self-important but foolish people." "Maybe so, maybe so," Reynolds chortles. For slurs on the city, however, it's hard to top Thomas Jefferson's "a cloacina of all the depravities of human nature," which reviewers note relegates Newt Gingrich's recent bad-mouthing to the junior varsity.

In spite of their overwhelmingly favorable notices, nearly all the local reviewers indulge energetically in a quibble section. This is the fun they've been waiting for, and one can practically see them rubbing hands and licking chops as they cite sins of omission and errors of fact. "Let the bickering begin," writes William Grimes for the New York Times as he launches into seven paragraphs of finger-wagging prose. While noting that the Encyclopedia "appears to have fewer [errors] than most," he goes on to mention that the book "should not place the Mayor's official residence on the wrong street." He also scolds the author of the entry on F. Scott Fitzgerald for missing an opportunity to identify the New York locations in The Great Gatsby.

In his list titled "What You Ought to Find in This Book, But Won't," a reviewer for The Observatory cites pizza and Cuban-Chinese restaurants. The editor of the Riverdale Press, a bit huffy at how the boundaries of his neighborhood have been defined, warns: "If you want to know about Riverdale, beware. When it comes to Bronx neighborhoods, this encyclopedia is geographically challenged."

Some accounts of the book serve as opportunities for commentators to address favorite urban issues of their own. Jason Epstein, writing in the New York Review of Books, identifies himself as a resident of SoHo and seeks to correct a deficiency he perceives in Jackson's tome by fulminating against Robert Moses, "that Count Dracula of city planners," and his plan (defeated) for an expressway that "would have destroyed the glorious cast-iron buildings that now constitute SoHo as well as Little Italy." Epstein also devotes a long paragraph to "dubious allocations of space," counting the number of columns for various ethnic groups and noting that "[s]ix columns are devoted to lesbians but only three to gays."

Jackson says he was expecting (even welcoming) the nitpickers and was preparing himself for something worse: "I actually had nightmares that we would leave out Fiorello LaGuardia or Greenwich Village or Harlem or some hugely important topic just because it fell through the cracks and nobody noticed." In his introduction, Jackson invites anyone finding errors or omissions to send corrections directly to his address.

Winding up their reviews, nearly all writers come back around to encomiums for the work and a tip of the hat for the service it renders. Epstein of the NYRB surfaces from his critique this way: "None of this much matters. To wander through the Encyclopedia is as frustrating and enlightening, as surprising and as irritating as the city itself. [I] expect that long before the second edition appears my own copy will have worn out from overuse."

Grimes of the Times ends: "Enough carping. The encyclopedia does the impossible and, for the most part, does it admirably well. Who can count the hours of research, the library call slips, the futile telephone calls to city agencies that this great pyramid of information will make unnecessary?"

The Riverdale Press waxes lyrical: "New York City is worth such a Herculean undertaking for precisely the reasons that it can never be a complete success: its constantly-changing, over-abundant life, the self-destruction and self-renewal that keep New Yorkers poised between despair and exultation."

--John O. Green

JOHN O. GREEN has written for Wired, Popular Computing, and other science magazines. He can be reached at [email protected].

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