Chambers Biographical Dictionary

(Chambers Harrap, 9th ed. 2011): 1,728pp, £26 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 550 10693 3.

Reviewed by Loulou Brown

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'Packed with over 18,000 biographies, Chambers Biographical Dictionary offers concise, authoritative and fascinating entries on all the people you'll ever need to know about,' says the blurb on this heavy tome of 1,728 pages. Well, no, actually. For the lay person maybe, but not for the newspaper sub or book or journal copy editor or proofreader who needs to check hundreds, if not thousands, of names and facts about well-known, and sometimes rather less-well-known, people.

I used the new edition of Chambers to check the details of many people that appeared in two books I recently worked on. The first was mainly concerned with German and Romanian writers. I was unable to find about a third of the people I checked, including: Norman Manea, a well-known Romanian Jewish writer; Emil Cioran, a famous Romanian philosopher; and Constantin Noica, a Romanian philosopher, essayist and poet. It was particularly important that I was able to check Noica's name as throughout the text Noica was randomly spelt either Noica or Noïca.

A useful addition

The second was about the philosophy of literature. Although most of the big names were included – Leavis, Lukacs, Adorno, Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, Marcuse and Derrida – some (for example, Mikhail Bakhtin and Stephen Greenblatt) were not. I had to check two less-well-known names very carefully as they had been misspelt throughout the text (Paul de Man and Stein Haugom Olsen), but Chambers had also failed to include them.

This book is a useful addition to the library of reference books that an editor and/or proofreader needs, but other biographical dictionaries should supplement it. At £40 you will have to consider carefully whether or not to buy it, but if you routinely work on texts that need the names of people and facts about them checked, this is a worthwhile investment.

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