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Q: Finding good books ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Finding good books
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Books and Literature
Asked by: brad23ny-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 19 Jul 2003 19:14 PDT
Expires: 18 Aug 2003 19:14 PDT
Question ID: 232918
I sometimes want to find the "best" book on such-and-such a subject. 
For example, I recently wondered: what's the best biography of the
composer Richard Wagner.

It's not hard to find information on recently published books,
published in the past five years or so.  I'm familiar with
and Barnes &, as well as the NY Times, which has online book
reviews, but primarily limited to recently published books.    What I
wonder is how to track down reviews, comparisons, or commentaries on
books published over a longer period of time.  Where does one look for
books on such-and-such a subject comparing books over the past 75
years or so?  How would I find the answer to a question such as:
what's the best biography of Richard Wagner?  Or, what's the best
translation of Virgil's Aeneid (comparing, presumably, various
editions over a number of years)?  Or, what's the standard book on the
French Revolution?

Thanks for any help you can offer.

Request for Question Clarification by luciaphile-ga on 20 Jul 2003 07:26 PDT
Can you define what you consider to be "the best"? Hard to do, I know,
but it's such a subjective expression. By best are you thinking most

There are some very good sources for older material, but the further
in time one wants to go back, the more likely it is that one has to
use print sources.


Clarification of Question by brad23ny-ga on 21 Jul 2003 10:03 PDT
It's difficult to say specifically what's meant by "best".  That's
part of the point of what I'm looking for.  I'm trying to find some
site or sites that will give me an authoritative starting place when
looking a book on such-and-such a subject.  I can always type in some
keywords to Amazon or Barnes & Noble.  The trouble is that I find too
many choices, and I don't know whether there are any that are
generally considered "recommended", and how to compare them.  For
example, when I type in "Boxer Rebellion" to I get 67 titles. 
I don't want 67, I want it narrowed down to maybe 2 of the bunch which
are recommended, or are generally considered authoritative.  For
"Marcel Proust biography" gives 70 titles.  For history of
slavery I find 5053 titles.  I guess what I'm looking for is
authoritative recommendations.  I'd like to think I'm going to a
college professor in French literature and saying:  "what do you
recommend as a biography of Proust, to someone who has not yet read
one... and why?  Is there one that's generally considered a classic?".
 Or ask a China history teacher:  "Can you recommend a good book on
the Boxer Rebellion?".  Etc.
Subject: Re: Finding good books
Answered By: luciaphile-ga on 28 Jul 2003 10:48 PDT
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
Hi brad23ny-ga,

Thanks for your question. As someone who reads voraciously and who
also gets to do selection of books as part of my job, this was a
pleasure to answer. Thanks also to Omnivorous-ga for some suggestions
he made to me.

There are a number of sources I can recommend if you are looking for
older reviews of books. These are print sources (the older the
material, the more likely it's only in print).

1. Book Review Digest
2. Book Review Index
3. Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature

These sources will provide citations only (the data you need to locate
reviews) and unfortunately, it's something of a crapshoot to determine
if the reviews are going to be helpful or not. When I've used these
sources in the past, I generally look at the title of the publication
(e.g. NY Times or something like the New Yorker is probably going to
have a more solid and/or longer review) and if provided the number of
pages. Once you have your citation, depending on the library you’re
using and age of the review, you would then need to go to microfilm or
bound copies of the periodical.

Another possibility would be to see if reviews or criticism have been
compiled in one of the Gale publications (e.g. Literature Resource
Center (online subscription database), “Dictionary of Literary
Biography,” or “What Do I Read Next?” There are many, many others, too
many to list here). Most large libraries or public library systems
have/subscribe to the print books or the database.

There is another publication used by many libraries (mostly academic)
as a selection tool that might be of interest. The name of this
periodical is "Choice" and it's quite useful. The books reviewed are
usually scholarly and the reviews are generally objective and are
usually by people qualified in the subjects of the books. This one
goes back to 1964. Again, a print source (well, it's online too, but
by subscription only). Most large libraries will probably subscribe to
this. I’ve found “Choice” an invaluable as a source for selection.

Certain other publications geared solely or primarily toward providing
reviews do exist. Some of these are “Booklist,” “Publishers’ Weekly,”
and “Kirkus Reviews.” All have their merit, but one has to be careful.
“Publishers’ Weekly” in particular is geared toward moving books
rather than providing objective reviews. “Booklist” is published by
the American Library Association and might be useful to you.


Although the site I’ve linked below is primarily about selecting and
evaluating reference materials, many of the criteria and sources
listed in the guide can be easily used for selecting other books.

Selection and Evaluation of Reference Materials

Another site that may be useful is:

Reviews and Reviewing]

When you’re in a site like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, see if they’ve
provided excerpts of editorial reviews. Both frequently include
reviews from publications like “Library Journal” or “Kirkus Reviews.”
Again, you’ll find some of these may have a bias and you need to keep
in mind that these types of sites have a goal: to sell product so they
won’t go out of their way to post poor reviews, but if you exercise
reasonable judgment, you can get a pretty decent idea of a book’s
quality. If they’ve provided it excerpts of the book, I’d explore
these. Look for: author’s background/credentials, the index—is it well
organized?, if they’ve given you the back cover’s image—who’s written
the blurbs? Scholars you know of and can respect? You sound like a
person who knows something about the subjects you’re reading—look
carefully at the bibliography if it’s provided.

For newer books, the best way to approach this all may be to begin by
searching some article databases. If you’re affiliated with a college
or university, you will probably have access to these, but even if
you’re not, most public libraries these days provide their patrons
with some of the basic ones. Most of the publications I’ve listed are
included in these kinds of databases, usually full-text. You would
probably also pull up references to reviews from more subject specific
periodicals, e.g. history journals. You can also do searches on the
authors. Chances are that if the author is a noted expert on a topic,
you’ll find corroboration of this.

Something to keep in mind—what is or was the “best” book on any given
topic can be, and often is supplanted by successive books or as new
information comes to light. However, a credible author will generally
adress or at least acknowledge the theories of a previous expert.

A well-constructed Internet search is another option. There are now
thousands of very good resource guides on any number of topics. Many
of these include bibliographies (some annotated) of books as well as
web sites. If the site itself seems to be of good quality (well-chosen
links, updated, well-organized, from a reliable source, etc.), the
inclusion of a particular book is something to take into account.
Terms to include might be “resource guide,” “subject guide,” or
bibliography. It might also be advisable to limit the search to a .edu
domain (easily done by an advanced search in Google).

Some other resources for you:

Book Review Sources

Finding Books

Looking for Mr. Goodbook

Google search:
“book review” sources
“book review” online sources
finding “best books”

Personal knowledge

I hope this answers your question. If you require additional
information or if the links do not work for you, please ask for
clarification before rating my answer and I’ll do my best to assist

brad23ny-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars
This is very helpful.  Thank you.

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