20 December 2005 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 2 comments

I am occasionally asked what I look for when I evaluate new books to see whether I might want to buy them. I have a pretty well established routine that I follow.

The first thing that I do is to look at the bibliography. I want to know what sources that author has used in drawing his or her conclusions. Did the author use almost all secondary sources? Did the author use a mix of primary and secondary sources? Within the primary sources, what’s the mix of published vs. manuscript materials? The thing that I’m looking for most of all is whether the author has done his or her homework. That’s why I will not even purchase a new book if it doesn’t have a bibliography. That was the very first thing that I noticed about Carhart’s festering pile of crap. If the book passes that test, then we move to the next test.

I will then see what maps and illustrations are included. I’ve already made my thoughts on this particular topic known, and won’t repeat them here. What I look for here is: are there maps? If so, are they any good? And what illustrations has the author used? Any that are new or different? Or are the same old tired ones that everyone uses?

If the book passes the map/illustration test, then I look at the notes to see how they look. I look to see whether they’re clear and comprehensive and whether they’re useful to me as the reader. If they aren’t, then I’m done. If they are, then we go to the final test.

The final test is to pick a random passage and read it, and see how the prose/editing is. If it’s good, and all other tests have been passed, then it’s time to crack open my wallet. If not, then it goes back on the shelf, and I move on.

Of course, all of this can go right out the window if the book seems to be something that’s pertinent to my work and that I need for something I’m working on. When this little gem came out, I bought it immediately, sight unseen, because my book on East Cavalry Field was being copyedited, and I had to know whether I had been trumped. Fortunately, it turned out to be a waste of about $20, to my great relief, but this is a book that would not have made it past the very first test otherwise.

My point in all of this is that the decision to buy a book is usually one that I spend a fair amount of time and energy in making, and I almost never buy on the spur of the moment or on an impulse. There are times when that’s a good thing, but there are also times when it’s not.

Scridb filter


  1. Paul Taylor
    Thu 29th Dec 2005 at 6:00 pm


    Found myself in a Target today with a few minutes to kill, so I wandered over to the book section and noticed that they had the new Doris Kearns Goodwin bio of Lincoln on sale. I picked it up and, thinking of this rant, decided to give it the “Wittenberg Test.”
    🙂 Lo and behold, the first thing I noticed was that there is NO bibliography. Second, the notes were formatted in a manner I was unfamiliar with: There are no identifying note numbers within the text, so if the reader wants to see if a particular sentence or paragraph is sourced, they must find the identifying page number within the notes section. Then the individual notes are identified by the beginning and ending words of the sentence or paragraph, which causes the reader to have to remember the opening and closing words of what they just read. Personally, as a reader, I much prefer footnotes to endnotes but apparently that is a far more tedious (expensive) process for publishers than endnotes.

    For a book that is touted as a major scholarly work by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, it seemed odd that there is no bibliography and that the endnotes are presented in what I would consider a cumbersome fashion. Am I missing something here?


  2. Thu 29th Dec 2005 at 10:52 pm


    I’m glad to hear you found my methodology useful. 🙂

    Goodwin has had her own problems. She was accused of plagiarism and ended up having to settle the matter. It really hurts her credibility.

    As for the formatting of the notes, I absolutely HATE that format. I despise it because it’s not user friendly at all. I’m not entirely sure that it’s all Goodwin’s fault; those things are usually chosen by the publisher. My guess is that that’s what happened here.

    I bought a copy of the book because I thought that there might be some useful information in it that would shed some light on my biography of Ulric Dahlgren. I would not have bought it otherwise, and I doubt that I will sit down and read the book.

    I hope she doesn’t win another Pulitzer.


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