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October 12, 1986|Alan Bell

CHAMBERS BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY (Cambridge University: $29.95; 1,493 pp.). First published in 1897 and regularly revised and updated ever since, "Chambers Biographical Dictionary" is a useful addition to the shelf of reference books of Scottish origin now being marketed in the United States by Cambridge University Press. Nearly 1,500 pages, including subject indexes, contain more than 15,000 short lives, each with basic facts and brief (though occasionally outdated) suggestions for further reading. Though leavened by a fair proportion of North American entries, the balance remains somewhat Eurocentric, but as a general international work of reference, it has long deserved its well-established reputation.

There is an engaging oddity about the variations in length of entry, and the compilers have managed to avoid undue concision in a way that makes the volume a very pleasant source for random browsing. The curious reader may easily build up lists of candidates for inclusion in a further edition (Marcus Garvey, Desmond Tutu, Charles Willson Peale, Maurice Sendak, to take a few of mine at a venture). The real surprises, however, lie more in who is already in, rather than in those unaccountably omitted. There is much pleasure, too, in the diverting juxtapositions that alphabetical order imposes: Irving Berlin and Isaiah Berlin, Julius (Groucho) Marx and Karl Marx, and so on. Commendable--and addictive!

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