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The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know Hardcover – 1 Apr 1990

4.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 586 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (Trade); First Printing edition (April 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395437482
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395437483
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 20.1 x 4.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,384,306 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Defines the people, places, sayings, and ideas representing what the authors consider essential information for literate Americans.

Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A mine of information, the kind of reference book which you can find yourself reading straight through, like Brewer's Phrase and Fable or John Sutherland's Companion to Victorian Literature. But - why this strange reluctance to give the exact dates for people and things? Robert Browning (1812-1889) is "a poet of the nineteenth century" Why? Even more ridiculously, Louis XIV (who lived from 1638 to 1715) is "a king of France in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries". In opening my copy to find an example to illustrate my gripe I noticed that Julian rather than Thomas Huxley is given as the (yes, "nineteenth century") champion of Darwin. Though I'm sure this has been corrected in a later edition than mine - hasn't it?
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Format: Hardcover
Did you know that "cathedral" stems from the Latin word "cathedra" meaning chair? Or that an Epicurean is one who appreciates material pleasures? Or that a shamrock has THREE leaves?
These snippets may indeed seem like bits of useless information, but that is where you are wrong. People who have read this book, can go almost anywhere in the world and look as if they know almost everything. This book can give anyone an instant degree. It makes even the most common of people seem like they graduated with honors from Harvard. With catagories rangin from Philosophy to Literature to Geography to modern history, one can become an expert on almost anything. Since I read this book, I have been able to talk to people I was afraid to, people who seemed too educated, too high up, but now I am equal to them.
The book is arranged in several different catagories, which runs alphabetically in small paragraphs about different aspects of that topic. It can easily be used as a quiz book or as a basis for a class. This book is all the textbooks in the world as one. This book changed my life and can change yours.
I hear you ask if there is anything NOT wonderful about this book, and indeed there is. It is perhaps too American oriented. There are topics specifically labelled "American Geography" and "American History", and most Historians will agree that the history of America is one of the less important genres of history in this day and age. Perhaps a more global edition needs to be made. it is not only these catagories, however, in the religion catagory, it is mainly American based religions that are talked about. But the author was American and American's do tend to be proud of their heritage.
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Format: Hardcover
You may have one historical or cultural question. Once you look it up, you can't stop. Either being cross-referrenced to something further on that topic, or something that catches your eye on the same page, (starting the same chained reaction) or that quick question for that something that you always wanted to know. How did that cliche originate? What exactly did Paul Revere do again? Why use incense in religious ceremonies anyway? This is the encyclopedia for the 90s without the 30 books it used to take!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x9210e2e8) out of 5 stars 42 reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9204a3b4) out of 5 stars A first-rate leader source 14 Oct. 1999
By Tome Raider - Published on
Format: Hardcover
One of the other reviewers suggested that this book was too simplistic, and I suggest that is its very appeal. It is not overly simplistic, in my opinion, and having used it for several years now I have yet to spot a glaring defect or error. For example, last night I needed to refresh my recollection on the distinction between an analogy and a metaphor and a simile. Using two different dictionaries (and fifteen minutes) I was still a bit uncertain. Then I turned to this book and had the distinction clarified for me in 30 seconds. As other reviewers have suggested, it really does make for great reading just flipping through the pages. You'll learn all sorts of interesting tid-bits of information, and obviously if you want to elaborate upon your understanding, you can then hit your full-on encycplopedias, etc.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x92069174) out of 5 stars The REAL scoop 3 April 2001
By Chris - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book is an excellent resource, although because of the number of references, it cannot go into depth on many. But if you are looking for a general understanding of a concept, person, or phrase ingrained in American culture, you will find it here.
I fear that many critics of this book chastize it for its failure to include persons or events near and dear to their hearts. While I am sympathetic to that concern, the reader must understand that this book is akin to a popularity contest of culture, with the most commonly used/understood concepts rising to the top. This is actually a good thing, although it seems shallow at first blush.
As the authors note, the ability to communicate/read well stems from shared understanding. This book succeeds by providing what, at a minimum, should be known by someone because most literate Americans also know it. The authors, in fact, do not suggest we educate ourselves only within the confines of this book, or take its ideas as intrinsically more valuable. Rather, they say only that this is where we must start.
If my friends from abroad asked me what single best reference would prepare them to interact intelligently in America, this would be it.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
By Jimbo ( - Published on
Format: Hardcover
While not an in-depth examination of topics and more a survey of general knowledge the text is a MUST HAVE for any person wanting to be culturally literate. I discovered the book in the Reference Section of my local and college library. Especially useful for High School Students preparing for College entrance exams,Students/Teacher about to take their General Knowledge test for the NTA (National Teacher's Exam) and Teachers who want to offer the CORE of whats important! Great Buy Great Price!
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x92428d14) out of 5 stars An invaluable reference 19 Feb. 1999
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book is unbelievably useful and germaine. I initially purchased it to prepare for taking the Jeopardy! test (it's recommended by some of the champs), but it's usefulness goes far beyond that. Nobody can learn everything, and we all go through life not quite understanding that one mythological reference, parable, euphemism, historical reference, or slang term. It's all here in this one book! You will be unbelievably well grounded for existence in American society if you have this volume. Although it's great for looking up unknown references, I'm reading it from cover to cover and can't put it down.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9232dc18) out of 5 stars Good general reference starter 24 Jun. 2001
By Summer Belle - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Yes. That's right - i said a place to *start* your research journey.
This is in no way, shape, or form a book that will help you write a paper, pass a history course, or understand some obscure literary reference in a poem.
If you read it, however, you may just impress Jay Leno when he does his "Jay Walking" segments on the Tonight Show.
For what it is - an all purpose guide to Western / american culture - it does a good job. I've referenced my copy many times over the years. ie When I'm watching a movie set during the life and times of Horatio Nelson, I've looked up Nelson in the book. When I'm reading a book that takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, I've referenced quite a few things.
Is this the entire history of Western / American culture? NO. It's a thumbnail sketch with many, many holes.
It is however, quite informative and interesting.
As long as you understand what it is and what it isn't - I'd recommend the book.
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