Rethinking Books

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“Don’t judge a book by its cover” may have been good advice when books were leatherbound or clothbound, but the printed dust jacket and the glossy covers of paperbacks with bold graphics and alluring titles made the cover a principal means of attracting a reader to a book.  Still, there remain some communities that continue to judge the value of books—and, in particular, scholarly books—by their physical attributes, such as a preface, a bibliography, footnotes, and a table of contents.  The physical book has been the gold standard of serious scholars for centuries, and with good reason.  For centuries there was nothing better on offer.

That may not be the case anymore.

I entered law school in the fall of 1975.  Although for the next three years, I would conduct my research in the marvelous law school library with physical books and the various indexing tools—available in book form—that helped law students and lawyers navigate the contents of thousands of pages in thousands of volumes of court decisions, we also were taught to use a newly emerging technology offered by a company called LEXIS.  The service offered a full text database of court decisions that could be searched for specific words and phrases and using such Boolean operators as “and” and “or” for words in proximity to one another.  It was clunky, but it produced results.  It was not until a decade later that I worked for a law firm that employed a comparable technology.

Fast forward to 2021.  I have written a book entitled Campaign for the Confederate Coast for which I have made certain structural decisions.  One of these was not to use footnotes.  I remember reading in the preface to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time an admonition from his publisher that the more footnotes he had in his text, the fewer readers he would have.  Alarmed by this but feeling compelled to show that my writing was grounded in solid research, I happened upon the technique of tying references—at the back of the book—to the opening phrase of the paragraph to which they pertained.  This is clunky in a physical book, and user-unfriendly in an eBook.  My principal eReader is a Kindle Fire, and its search function for eBooks is limited to single words.  I find that to be limiting but workable.

In publishing Campaign for the Confederate Coast, I also decided to dispense with an index or a bibliography.  My reasoning was as follows.  I have never found indices to be particularly useful.  If I want to find the references to persons or places, the index lists concepts; if I want to find concepts, the index lists persons and places.  Moreover, the index seems always to be faulty, having failed to include every relevant reference.  In an eBook, one can search the words or phrases relevant to one’s inquiry and find most everything that an index would contain and more.  Most bibliographies are “selected bibliographies” that list not every work the author has consulted but only those that he claims to have consulted.  As a consumer of history, I am more interested not in the sources that an author claims to have consulted but in the way that he has used them.  I find this information in the references that the author ties to the text.  Bibliography is a pale shadow of references.  And I have read reviews of admired scholarly works in which a comment is made about the “tantalizing absence” of specific textual references.  I consider these works deficient even if they include bibliographies.

Independent scholars, like myself, who do not work for a university with a library or have easy access to such an institution’s library, must make do with what we can find.  Market forces have pushed the price of out-of-print physical books to outrageous levels.  Perversely, some publishers of scholarly works have set exorbitant prices on in-print physical books and price their eBooks only two or three dollars lower—is this a monopoly on knowledge that is beneficial to society?

Even though the Hathi Trust’s clunky interface has made using the online versions of the official histories of the army and navy records of the American Civil War more difficult, I would be surprised if any contemporary scholar still prefers to use the physical book versions.  The same for the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.

I find it hard to fault the Acolytes of The Book for their attitude because they have been trained by Acolytes of the Book whose approval they must obtain in order to progress from their apprenticeships to become full fledged Acolytes of the Book, as denoted by their higher academic degrees.  I am less sympathetic to the Acolytes of the Book who have also received a legal education, because, if they did not receive LEXIS training, they ought to demand a refund of their tuition.  If, however, they weren’t paying attention …

In the decades since the introduction of the eBook, I have seen several versions of a cartoon in which two people, dressed in medieval garb, are shown in conversation, and one is saying to the other something like, “Books are great, Gutenberg, but there’ll always be scrolls.”

Consider a cartoon depicting a similar conversation staged seven centuries later: “Kindle eBooks are great, Bezos, but …”

Current day Acolytes of The Book would do a service to themselves, their students, and the reading public by acknowledging the existence of eBooks and insisting that they be held to the same high standards to which print books are now held in accuracy of content, pagination, and citability.

Query: could the heuristically reinforced conservatism of the Acolytes of the Book be causing a failure to generate meaningful new insights into the lessons of history?

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Books

  1. Footnotes and bibliographies are essential so later scholars can check that you have not misquoted or mininterpreted your sources. You may feel totally confident that you would never do such a thing. Sadly, others are not so scrupullous.

  2. I agree with the comment in principle–certainly with respect to footnotes (whether as footnotes or endnotes in physical books or as links in eBooks) and less so as to bibliographies, which are unverifiable statements of sources that the author has claimed to have consulted in his studies. My books have included rigorous documentation of sources in the notes.

    I recently read a book by a noted scholar in which many statements were footnoted, but none of the footnotes contained any reference to the sources of the statement being made in the text. Instead, they all provided suggestions of additional readings on related topics. This is scholarship in form at the expense of substance.

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