Amateur Medieval Strategy – Book Hunting

13 Aug

This is the second of two days I’m taking off from work, supposedly to get some things done around home. Unfortunately, I seem to have chosen two of the hottest days of the year. The high yesterday was 95 (35 C) with a heat index near 110 (43 C) and today’s similar. I’ve decided on a new guideline by which to live my life; I’m not working outside when the temperature is more than twice my age – gonna have to change that in a few years or I’ll be working when it tops a hundred. OK, I’m a wimp. Used to love the heat in my younger days.

Was gonna mow pasture and did for about an hour yesterday. The question may arise, “How tough is it to mow? You just sit on a tractor.” When the tractor’s over 60 years old and there’s very little wind, all the heat from the engine block blows back on you. Jonathan Jarrett just offered that I’m a cutting edge sort of guy. I offer you this picture as refutation.

The “Geekmowbile”

Instead, it appears I’ve taken some time off work to catch up on my blogging. As anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with me knows, a huge portion of my Medieval History experience involves books. Yeah, I may get to a Conference now and again, I read some articles and have engaged in online discussions since the mid-90’s, and if you look hard enough you might even find me mentioned in a footnote in a book (hope I’m not linking to a copyright violation here), but reading books remains THE core of what I do. I thought I’d explain a little bit about how I go about buying them. 1

Like pretty much anyone who isn’t filthy rich or living in abject poverty, my ability to spend on luxuries has changed over time, based on my financial situation. When I started with this Medieval stuff, I was a year or two removed from buying a house and was undergoing the inevitable adjustment from renting and having about as much pocket cash as I wanted to spend without having to worry about it as long as I didn’t hop a plane to Vegas every week, as well as the ability to “save up” a fair chunk of change over a month or two by skimping a bit. The mortgage changed all that. Suddenly I couldn’t just go out whenever I felt like it, blow money on anything that caught my eye, etc. I needed a budget.

Now I’m living large again (relatively). The mortgage is paid off (though I bought a new car to celebrate so there’s still a decent payment but nothing like before). If I decide I want to buy 60 books at Kalamazoo, I can do it (though this has still impacted my budget a bit the past few months – just finished paying off the CC bill). Today, if I see a book that’s selling for $30 in paperback and $50 for hardcover, I’ll likely buy the HC – they are much more durable. So pretty much all of what follows goes back a couple of years before this recent, happy state of affairs. The good thing is I’ve retained a fair amount of my mortgage-induced discipline. I know where my money’s going now.

I’ve always read a lot, ever since I was a kid. Back then, and until I was 30 or so, it was all fiction. SF/fantasy, action/adventure/thriller, some westerns – I still have a lot of Stephen King and Zane Grey (I’ve given away almost all of my Louis L’Amour and Dean Koontz).

One of the big shocks when I got into history was the price of books. Instead of paying $5.95 for a mass-market Pb, I had to shell out $20 at a minimum. Initially I was just going to get a few books and stop. The goal was to write fantasy in a medieval setting. I wanted to get a feel for the period and not make any truly egregious errors. My world had to be internally consistent. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, within a couple of years, my priorities changed. I think I really started looking into this when I realized I couldn’t just buy off the shelf at the local bookstores.

Once I really got into this, I had to set a budget. For over ten years that was $100 a month. I won’t say I always kept to it, but I did better than I would have thought when I started. I tried to balance a month where I may have gone over by cutting back afterward and I work pretty hard on not buying books for the 2-3 months before Kalamazoo. With this budget, I needed to work a lot harder at my selection. The first couple of years I was buying off the shelf at Barnes & Noble or Borders. It has been a very long time since I have been able to find what I want at those stores. For a time, rather than purchasing online, I’d order things through the nearest B&N. Finally, on January 15, 1998 I went Amazon, buying The Battle of Hastings by Stephen Morillo (ed.) for $27.95. From that point, Amazon has been where I buy many of my new books, though over the past couple of years I’ve started moving toward purchasing direct from publishers due to conference and other discounts.

My Home Library (about 2/3 of it anyway)

Now for my “strategery.”

This is largely a repeat of something I posted on a Library Thing Discussion group a year or so ago.

VERY IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: What follows is an ideal. I’ve never followed it 100%. In particular, used bookstores completely overcome my good intentions. The International Congress for Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo hasn’t been real good for it either.

First contact

I have four main sources from which a title first comes to my attention. One is from the academic community. Now I’m not a member of the academic community (in history) but I lurk around the edges. I look for mentions in mailing lists such as Mediev-L and reviews in the Bryn Mawr Review and The Medieval Review. Books are also sometimes mentioned in the academic journals I read. And while I didn’t mention it in that post, one of things I do while I’m reading and taking notes is keep a separate sheet of paper on hand to write down references I want to take a closer look at.

A second is that due to attendance at conferences I receive catalogs from probably a dozen publishers – Brill, Boydell & Brewer, Harvard U Press, Oxford, Cornell, Medieval Institute, etc. When I receive those, I browse through and circle titles/summaries that catch my eye.

Third is recommendations. Probably 2/3 of what they recommend is garbage but some titles will come up.

Fourth is Library Thing. I scan profiles of anyone who triggers my tag watch and I’ve gone through the tag pages of most of my own tags and looked at the libraries of people who have a lot of similar tags. And there are books mentioned in the LT discussion groups.

I suppose a 5th is if someone e-mails me, PM’s me, sends me a Facebook message, I read it on a blog, etc. But I don’t have a “system” for these – it sort of just happens.

So this gives me my initial list. From this I take books and add them to a spreadsheet of my books at home; a 2-worksheet Excel file with one worksheet of what I own and one of what I don’t, my wish list. I also label/tag them and add them to my Library Thing Wish List.

Culling the Herd

When it comes time to thin my selection – generally when I’m ready to buy more books – I get serious. I take the books that rank highest on my list, usually based on what I’m reading right now, and get to work.

First I’ll check Amazon product descriptions and reviews. There are a few reviewers on Amazon who, based on past reviews, I trust. I won’t generally eliminate a book based on Amazon reviews but I will move some into the “buy” column and not go further.

Second is Academic Reviews. I’ve already picked out books through Bryn Mawr and Medieval Reviews (mailing lists). If I pick a book out based on those I save the e-mails as a text file – BMRxxx (when I started this there was no Medieval Review – it was all part of Bryn Mawr, hence the file name). I’ll read the review again and generally this moves the book into the buy column.

While I’m not a member of the History Academic Community, I’m fortunate enough to be a member of the Academic Community in “nothistory” and have access to JSTOR through my institution’s library system. I do online searches of the American Historical Review, English Historical Review and Early Medieval Europe looking for reviews. I also subscribe to Speculum and The Journal of Late Antiquity. If I don’t find a review there (usually I do) I’ll go to Google and look for other reviews. If it’s a primary/contemporary/period source I’ll look for a general description of the work through various sources ranging from Wikipedia to course syllabi posted online by professors. Wikipedia receives some bad press and I’d never recommend it as someone’s only source for something, but it often makes a pretty decent starting point.

Keep in mind that if you aren’t a student, or don’t work for an academic institution, your local public library may have JSTOR access. It’s definitely worth checking out.

The Buy

Once I have my “thumbs-up” list I go back to Amazon which is where I make most of my purchases. Now if a book has a high price – $60 or more – I won’t delete it from my list. First I’ll check Abebooks. It’s surprising how many books are listed for big dollars on Amazon that, in another bookstore, are at half or even less. If it’s sitting in a private bookstore and has been on the shelves for five or more years, the price may be marked down. I’ve bought books listed at over $100 on Amazon for less than $35 on Abebooks. I’ve also used AddALL and others. Keep in mind that in buying books through these sites that provide a market for book sellers, unless you’re fortunate enough to find multiple titles at one store, you pay S&H on each item so that’s a consideration.

If a book’s too expensive for me to buy right now I won’t delete it. It’ll just go back into the herd in case either a paperback edition comes out or if down the road it gets discounted (usually by someone other than Amazon). And it may be in my institution’s library. I have bought books priced at over $60 but it’s rare. In that case it has to be something I feel I really need.

Also, very rarely an edition isn’t available in the US but is in the UK. I’ve only done this a couple of times but I have bought books this way and paid the overseas S&H. If it’s a recent pub I won’t because I figure it’ll probably show up soon but if it’s 3-4 years old or older I will.

If you’re looking for something that’s unavailable or no longer in print, don’t forget the Internet Archive and other online sources. There’s an astonishing amount of free public domain stuff out there. If I can, I like to get a modern version of a source complete with notes and annotations but I’ve downloaded a fair number of PDF’s too.

In a used bookstore all these rules go out the window, but at a used bookstore I’m generally at a much more reasonable price so I feel justified in being less selective. Besides, I just like supporting privately owned used bookstores.

You’ll notice that I haven’t addressed judging a book based on content; footnotes, author, bibliography, date of publication, etc. To get into that would require its own post – I have some guidelines there too. But part of the problem is that quite often, through buying on line, I never get to look at the book so I end up relying on what I’ve included here.

So that’s it – my book-buying “system.” Not perfect, certainly, and I expect I’ll continue to refine it, but it has been helpful to me. As always, suggestions from others are welcome.

1 If you’re curious what books I have – or what to buy me for Christmas – you can take a look at my collection on Library Thing.


Posted by on August 13, 2010 in Books


Tags: , , ,

4 responses to “Amateur Medieval Strategy – Book Hunting

  1. gratefultothedead

    September 2, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Hi medieval history geek,Love your blog. You're on my blogroll.A quick question: You mention the Bryn Mawr Classical list and their Medieval list. I've gotten on both of them, but darned if I can figure out how to set them to digest mode. Too many emails! If I can't figure it out, then I'll need to unsubscribe. When I try to "update profile," it won't give this basic option. Any ideas?

  2. Medieval History Geek

    September 2, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    Bryn Mawr offers a daily digest – not sure about TMR. I'd send a message to the administrative address and ask them. The two are sister lists so I'd think it would be an option.

  3. Chad

    December 29, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Have you ever looked up books on Goodreads? I like it better than Amazon because it has a rating out of 5 for each book and plenty of quality reviews. The cumulative rating for books is a good sign for whether you will consider the book or not, unless there are very few ratings for the book. You should check it out if you haven’t already.

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 4, 2014 at 3:20 pm

      Hey Chad, Thanks for the comment.

      No, I haven’t used it. The main reason is pretty simple; by the time I became aware of Goodreads, I was already on LibraryThing and I decided to make it my main online social book venue.


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