“What Books Are a Good Investment for Scholars?”

A former student of mine, now a colleague in the field of philosophy, has asked the following question:

I have some (limited) funds available for buying academic books. This is a new experience for me; I have relied on the library for almost all my books so far in my academic career. But since the funds are limited, I need to carefully prioritize how I use them, and I don’t want to buy books I’ll look at once and never again. Since my dissertation is in epistemology . . . I want to prioritize epistemology texts. So here’s the question: given the above about my priorities, what philosophy texts, especially epistemology texts, do you recommend? (I will probably be able to buy no more than 10 books.)

This is an excellent question. Over the past thirty years, I’ve built a library of nearly 8,000 books. You might think this disqualifies me from commenting on proper stewardship of assets and shelf space. But I have learned a few things along the way. Here’s my response to this specific question:

Given your practice of using the library so effectively, I’m not sure I’d recommend that you buy books on your dissertation topic. I’ll come back to that in a moment. But I would consider the following general guidelines:

  1. ‎Invest in the best reference works, whether in epistemology or more generally.
  2. Consider those anthologies that contain classic works and seminal essays on new developments, perhaps in epistemology. There are some excellent anthologies today that focus exclusively on epistemology.
  3. For monographs and other works on your dissertation topic, stick with those that you’re likely to mark up the most during your research and writing, by authors who have the most to contribute (whether or not you agree with them).
  4. Don’t forget to consider the quality of the writing itself when selecting books for permanent residence in your library. The company you keep will rub off on you (see Psalm 1). Search out the authors who are also good stylists from whom you can learn as you improve your own writing craft. In other words, read as a writer!

On some of the topics I’ve written about, some few have been addressed in a uniquely influential way by a particular thinker. For example, I first began writing serious philosophy for publication on the problem of evil and selected John Hick’s work as a foil for what I had to say at the time. His book Evil and the God of Love was already being excerpted in anthologies and has proven to be a classic. This is, among other reasons, because John was such a clear writer, he surveyed the whole history of Christian treatments of the problem, and he contributed significantly to updating and developing the minority position (which he called the “Soul-Making” or “Irenaean” tradition).

Also, you may find that your current research links up with older works that are more difficult to come by now. These might be worth owning. Much depends on how much you expect to remain focused on your topic for the next decade or two. Since you’re pursuing an academic career, you will probably have an extensive university library at your disposal pretty much at all times. And you may have a research assistant some of that time, in which case you can send out to collect things for you!

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

2 Responses to “What Books Are a Good Investment for Scholars?”

  1. Pingback: Really Recommended Posts 8/17/12 « J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"

  2. Jonathan says:

    Thanks, Doug! I appreciate your time & wisdom.


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