There have been discussions lately (and, I think, always) about “essential” books.
This amuses me, particularly when they are “Pagan Essential Books” – as so many people insist that one of the values of Paganism is the lack of a central authority – if there is no authority, how can there be “essential” books? (Yes, the comment is slightly mischievous – but only slightly so).
I’m not about to offer a list of “books one should read” even though I think there are some of those… I’d be very happy if most people had read The Republic, for instance, and understood it and worried at it and thought about it. Saying that, it’s been years since I read it. The same holds for the Symposium. (I was amused the other day to be speaking to a student, who was from Greece, who didn’t recognise my pseudonym. When her professor arrived and asked what we were discussing, I told him I had tasked the student to reread Plato over the break).
So, no list of books.
But – a list of suggestions ABOUT books. These aren’t things I suggest anyone else does – this is what I do. And this is only for books that purport to dispense knowledge – fiction, poetry – those are different genre and live to different rules.
The flashier the cover, the less likely I am to buy the book. Oh, I might pick it up and look at it – there’s a reason they call those things, “eyecatching”. And I’m in no way put off by a beautiful cover. But still…
I don’t pay much attention at all to those blurbs that tell you that X person thinks this book is the best thing since sliced honey loaf UNLESS that X person is someone whose writing I know and trust already.
I check who the author is and why they are writing this book. I have a penchant for books written by scholars – but a book written by Joe Bloggs, PhD, that then has no mention of what that PhD was in, or how it applies to the subject at hand, is not nearly as impressive to me as a book written by Joe Bloggs, MA, which says the MA was in the subject of the book at X university.
If the author is “the author of 11 million popular books on this subject!!!” – well, I won’t necessarily put it back on the shelf, but I’m a lot less inclined to shell out more of your earth pounds for such a tome.
Basically, I want the author to explain why she thinks she has the nous to write this book, and why I should listen to her voice, among all the others clamouring for my attention (and money). And that means, “Lifelong practitioner” is going to carry more weight than “PhD in entirely unrelated subject” – assuming the lifelong practice is in the subject of the book.
I look at the reference list. I want there to BE a reference list. I want it to be wide ranging, I want it to be organised, I want it to be properly cited. I want it to refer to the literature in whatever field is being discussed.
And I read a couple of paragraphs from somewhere random in the book. (I don’t read the whole thing or even whole chapters. I know people disagree with me about this but reading a book that is being sold, when one has no intention of buying it, seems to me to be stealing). (No, I don’t download music or films without paying for them, either. I’m odd, that way).
I want to be drawn in, by those paragraphs. I want to know that the author’s style won’t have me running for the hills – I have to read shedloads of dry stuff for work, I’m not about to slog through too much of it outside of work.
I want to know that the author knows when to cite the literature – if she says, “It’s well known that purple is the best possible colour for landscapes” I want that to be followed by some sort of support from the field.
If those couple of paragraphs contain unsubstantiated claims, if they contain mistranslations of ancient texts, or no translation at all or no indication that the author has ever bothered to read the ancient text or an authoritative translation (I can’t tell you some of the messes I’ve seen – including one whole rant by an author about something in an ancient text which was clearly written as satire, but was being taken as truthful report, because either the author didn’t read the language in question – my bet is on that – or didn’t bother to read the whole work – or some other explanation), if the author is trying to convince me of something outlandish on flimsy evidence – the book goes back on the shelf.
I think about what else I could do with the money – will this be a reasonable amount to spend?
And then I either put it back on the shelf, or I buy it.
Sometimes, I buy it in spite of all the above – one memorable time I did this because a friend begged me to read a book that was constantly being recommended to him as a fantastic book. It wasn’t. Well, yes, it was – but in the old, high sense of “fantastic” in that what it tried to convince the reader was history was generally fantasy….
And I have a bizarre sense of humour. I have lots and lots of books about the grail, and conspiracies and all sorts. They amuse me.
So in reality, the main touchstone I use for whether or not to buy a book is if it appeals to me.
Which seems an entirely sensible way to decide.