“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!

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How to Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #3


Is it even possible to document references to works researched using your Kindle?

Sure. But the technique isn’t conventional. While there are no page numbers, there are location numbers for every line of text. These appear at the bottom of each Kindle page. And they remain constant regardless of the font size you adopt for reading.

So the only thing you have to do differently when documenting a quotation from the Kindle edition of a book is give the location number where you would indicate the page number of a standard book.

This issue has been thoroughly discussed at various sites, including Amazon’s own Kindle blog. Many who write about this seem to be ill-informed.

Some books exist only in e-book format; indeed, some exist only in Kindle format. E-books are legitimate sources of information. It ought to be possible to cite them and to do so accurately and clearly. Even an academic paper evaluating e-books and reporting research about their contents would have to include specific documentation, even if the researcher was arguing that they are not a legitimate form of information dissemination.

There are e-books aplenty, and scads of formats among them. The Kindle has a proprietary format. Amazon’s well-known presence and general reputation worldwide should ensure that this format comes to be widely accepted.

Kindle and the Purpose of Citations

Let’s remember why citations are required in the first place. First, and foremost, they give credit to whom credit is due. This is not merely a matter of paying respects. It is a matter of protecting someone else’s intellectual property.

A secondary reason for documentation is that it is an aid to readers who might wish to chase down the reference and study the larger context of what is cited.

Both of these objectives are easily accommodated by using location numbers for Kindle citations.

A Possible Liability and Its Remedy

One liability of referencing material as it appears in an e-book rather than a traditional book has directly to do with the variability of formats from one e-book publisher to another. Readers of material that cites an e-book will often have more difficulty finding the specific source.

A partial remedy is to be sure to indicate that the source you cite is the Kindle edition of a book. This will prevent confusion about which e-book is cited. But the Kindle is not yet ubiquitous. A majority of readers may not yet have access to one. So they’re a bit stuck until the Kindle becomes more widely used—as it surely will. They’re only a bit stuck, though, because they may not have much trouble following up on a citation within a traditional book version of the material.

What about Citing a Kindle Book for a Term Paper?

Some have advised students to take care to consult their teachers before citing a Kindle book in a research paper with footnotes and a bibliography. That’s not a bad idea.

I must say that if one of my students submitted a paper with Kindle book citations, and without first confirming my approval, I would be very reluctant to deprive her of that option. There’s nothing irresponsible about what she’s done. But the student should be certain that her teacher’s syllabus does not explicitly prohibit the citation of Kindle books.

What about Citing a Kindle Book in a Book or Article for Publication?

There should be no concern that an author risks being accused of plagiarism if he cites a Kindle book, as long as he provides all the information needed to confirm his source.

Publishers themselves often have special citation requirements, a standard way they handle each kind of citation for their books, journals, or magazines. It’s an author’s responsibility to provide all the necessary bibliographical details when submitting a manuscript for publication. It’s recommended that he use the publisher’s guidelines for formatting. If a publisher doesn’t address the question of formatting e-books, the author has two choices, enter the data in a format that can be understood and revised by the copy editor, or consult the publisher for guidelines about the matter.

If a publisher refuses to allow Kindle book citations, get another publisher. Alternatively, if there’s a good chance you’ll wish to cite a Kindle book in what you’ll be writing for a specific publisher, discuss it with the publisher before signing a contract. A publisher will most likely accommodate you, and even express their approval in the contract for publication.

A Future for Kindle Books Among Scholars

Every time I see my high school daughter leave for school with a book bag loaded with heavy textbooks I wonder how she manages. Wouldn’t it be great if she could get those same books on a Kindle and just carry that in a shoulder bag or something? All it would take would be for Amazon to perpare Kindle versions of those books.

I can assure you that Amazon is pursuing this avenue. As it is, they already have a growing list of textbooks available in Kindle version. I’ve been surprised to see many philosophical texts used at the university level available in this format. The day may come when a student can get every textbook on a Kindle . . . and get a substantial discount to boot.

Here’s an advantage that hits closer to home for me. If I wish to conduct sabbatical research at a remote location, it would be unrealistic if I had to ship all the books I think I might wish to consult. I have friends who have done this, but time and cost would be prohibitive for me.

What I might do, though, is browse the Kindle inventory at Amazon for books related to my research. I could download these before I leave on sabbatical, or on location while on sabbatical. The crucial thing for me would be to be able to quote accurately from a source of valuable material. A Kindle version would make that possible. After returning from sabbatical, I could, if I felt the need to, check my Kindle citations against traditional book editions and convert the documentation. (Or I could assign this to a research assistant.)

New to Kindle? Check it out here.

For a good resource on electronic documentation, see Diana Hacker’s book Research and Documentation in the Electronic Age

Related Posts:

Kindle Your Reading Habits

How to Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #1

How To Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #2

How to Get the Most Out of Your Kindle—Tip #4

Hacking the ABD Life: Part 1 — “Good” Means “Good Enough”


ABD—”All But Dissertation.” This label has a distinctly demoralizing drum to it, especially as a designation for someone—the Ph.D. candidate—who has accomplished so much, usually comparatively early in life.

Of course, writing a doctoral dissertation is a huge undertaking in its own right. And it can make or break a Ph.D. candidate’s academic career. There are two main challenges. The first is as much psychological as it is anything else. You have to have “internal fortitude,” the ability to take small steps toward the completion of a big project, to manage hurdles and set-backs, and to survive the comparative loneliness of the process.

Second, you have to impress your dissertation committee with the quality of the finished product and with your prospects as a scholar. So the work has to be good. This, obviously, relates closely to the first main challenge.

Let me repeat the best advice I received while writing my Ph.D. dissertation: “Think of your dissertation as the last paper you write during your formal education, and keep in mind that it really doesn’t have to be longer than a hundred pages.” It didn’t hurt that this counsel came from a member of my dissertation committee.

The suggestion about length is probably situation-specific. It would be wise to consult with your committee about appropriate length. And “consultation” is the key word here. You should be able to share your own ideas about appropriate length, given your topic and the way you plan to organize your material. It is generally believed that the best dissertation topic is a narrowly focused topic. It would stand to reason that in many cases narrower focus translates into fewer total pages. There’s a saying, “Don’t beat a dead horse.” There’s another saying, “If the horse is dead, dismount.” The goal shouldn’t be to come up with a topic that will require X number of pages, but to come up with a topic that makes a worthy contribution to the field and establishes the author as a capable scholar, regardless of word count.

The more general principle in my advisor’s comment is that the dissertation isn’t a book. It’s not even a published paper. I caution against approaching your dissertation as if you were writing a book manuscript that will be ready to submit to one of the top academic presses. Your dissertation committee is large enough with the three to five people that play that official role. No point trying to write for the vague target audience for a book on the same topic. Save that for later.

Let me put it this way. You’ve got three people on your committee. Maybe one of them knows quite a lot about your topic. The other two are conversant. Are there others in the discipline who have go-to expertise on your topic? Probably so. Will they be in the room during your dissertation defense? Probably not. So you can forget about them.

Your work has to be good. I said that before. But how good does it have to be? Answer: good enough (lower-case “g”). So estimate how good that is and make that your goal. And I do mean estimate. Don’t calculate. Members of your committee have responsibilities. They should be able to advise you about what their expectations are. No one else’s opinion really counts, especially if they don’t see the work before the defense. (That includes the expert on another continent, and it includes your doting grandmother and admiring spouse—if you happen to be married.)

If you’re ABD, let me know your thoughts. If you’re on a dissertation committee for someone who is ABD, your comments would be especially valuable.

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