If you want to choose a great read this Christmas for you or someone else, here are my top tips for finding a good ‘un (and I’m talking here about non-fiction, not historical novels):
1) Check the biog of the author on the book jacket. How do they describe themselves? What’s their platform? Do they sound credible? When was the last time they published a book? Producing a book like clockwork every year doesn’t leave much (or any) time for original research.
2) Does the author have a track record of specialisation in the period or topic in question? Or does their list of other publications indicate that they cherry-pick subjects from all over the place, skimming across the surface and not doing anything in depth?
3) Call me old fashioned but I do like a good footnote. Personally, I find histories without them frustrating and suspicious. (Sorry to postmodernists). If I want to know more, or to follow a lead, then I can – with a footnote. And I can tell what is new research, and what is anecdotal or apocryphal. Similarly, you can see immediately if there is too much dependence on a small number of secondary works, and all you are going to get is reheated history. Footnotes which cite only titles and no page numbers are, well, a bit odd, in my opinion – it seems lazy and superficial, and doesn’t save any space. Sometimes books don’t have footnotes at all because of space constraints imposed by publishers. But that itself makes me wonder about the seriousness of the publisher too. One way round this is that some authors put footnotes and references on their websites.
4) Flick to the back. What does the bibliography look like? I avoid books which have only used about ten books in their preparation, but equally a long bibliography of books which are 30 years old is not a good thing either. A sign that a book may be compelling, with lots of new ideas, will be a bibliography citing:
- manuscript (ie archival) sources, including foreign archives, where appropriate. That means the book should contain some original work.
- many academic journal articles (of a recent date) and/or a number of recent unpublished PhD theses. That’s because here will be the latest ideas on a topic; the author will be up to date, or at least aware of current trends and new discoveries.
- recent publications, up to a year before the book in question is published ie up to the time the manuscript went to the publisher.
5) Look at the acknowledgements. Who do they thank? Lots of libraries, archives and other specialists? Good. In addition, I’m usually nervous of any author who has used researchers to find material for them. Why aren’t they doing themselves? Unless you’re very old or infirm there doesn’t seem to be a good reason not to do your own legwork; not least because only you can spot connections when researching and make those all-important serendipitous links which will make your story. If an author’s used a researcher to help them identify and translate odd bits of material in a tricky language, then that’s fine but if they are seriously specialising in a particular country’s history it does make you wonder why they haven’t visited themselves.
6) And finally, of course, have a read of the introduction or opening chapter. Is it gripping right at the start? If not, then you may be in for a bit of a slog.
7) Enough from me – what are your top tips? Post your comments below!