“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!

Now Reading “Little, Big,” by John Crowley

If you know the name Smoky Barnable, it’s because you’ve read all or part of John Crowley’s fantasy novel Little, Big, or, The Fairies’ Parliament. Or—less likely—you’ve only read about it. I suggest this is unlikely because you probably haven’t read about the novel unless you are a reader, like fantasy fiction, and can’t resist when the accolades for a book are in the order of: Read more of this post

Why Book Covers Matter

As a reader, I care about what books in my library look like. As an author, I care about what my books look like. Cover art has its own aesthetic. It should appeal. It should say something about what is between the covers, but without saying too much. And, if you’re a marketing director at a publishing firm, it should have what they call “pop”—it should get a prospective buyer (notice, I didn’t say reader) to turn the book over, to read the blurbs, to inspect the pages. With that sort of investment, there’s a better chance the book will sell (whether or not it’s read).

There’s more to the aesthetic of a book than its cover design. What does it feel like in the hand? How are the pages trimmed? Are they ragged, or clean? What about the paper itself? What is its quality? The font, the margins, the kerning. These all matter.

The cover is special. It’s the most noticed feature of the aesthetic of any book. And yet, for me at least, it isn’t always noticed. Countless times I have perused a book without noticing, much less examining, its cover. Not everyone is flawed in this way. I’m sure that what I don’t attend to directly still leaves an impression via its subliminal power. But when I do notice, this noticing is often the source of two different feelings, which may or may not concur. I’m either bewildered by the art or pleased by it, or both.

What I mean by bewildered is quite simple. I don’t get it. I can’t make heads or tails of it. I don’t understand it. And this is what is arresting about it. The design of the cover confuses me or strikes me as impertinent. I assume that the cover is designed. That is, there’s an explanation why this cover is attached to this book. But the explanation escapes me. This intrigues me, especially if the art is at the same time pleasing.

When I say I’m pleased by the cover art of a book, I mean that it gives me pleasure. This is more difficult to explain. And the pleasure induced by a particular cover may be diminished or it may be intensified by the effort to explain its special appeal. Explaining the appeal of a book cover must begin with a description of the experience induced. And this is remarkably variable.

At any rate, this experience of pleasure may be a selling point for me. I may wish to own a copy of the book as much for its cover design as for any other reason. I may feel this way even if I realize that the book holds this “limited” attraction for me. I may even buy the book. This could explain, at least in some cases, why I have purchased a book at a brick and mortar establishment, even if I could have saved a few dollars by ordering it online. It isn’t necessarily an indication of impatience. It may have to do with an attachment to this particular copy of the book I hold in my hands. It is this one that has provided the pleasure. I will zigzag through the columns of books, each shelved book beckoning hopelessly for my attention. I will stand in line, beholding the book with persistent wonder. I will step up to the cashier and hand over my credit card with satisfaction.

The physicality of this unified experience cannot be matched by a paypal order. I will leave the store “holding the bag,” feeling responsible for my purchase. I may pull the book out and place it on the passenger seat of my car, giving it occasional sidelong glances as I return home, and thus extending the experience of pleasure. The prolongation of the experience adds texture to the experience.

At home, I will leave the book out for awhile, so that the initial pleasure returns for brief instants as I tend to other business. I will wait to “process” the book, to assign its place in my collection. For now, its place is distinctive. It is not just one more book among many. It has a distinctive power over my attention.

To be sure, and thankfully, there won’t be many books like this. Man does not live, aesthetically or otherwise, by books alone. But the quality of life may be improved by the cover of a book.


A Book about Book Covers

Links about Book Covers

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