Monday, March 28, 2011

"Must-Have" Theological Books, or Not?

Here is a wise word of counsel from Fredrick Danker concerning the hype, buzz, and confusion that often attends the publication of theological books.  This is a stinging reminder and one that I need to remember.
The quality, not the condition, of the dog-eared expositions on pastors’ shelves is a fairly good indication of the spiritual diet they serve the people. Yet it is not always easy for the minister or for the seminary student who is beginning to build a theological library to make a judicious selection. In a blizzard of pretentious advertisements, some of which threaten one with expository bankruptcy if this or that allegedly immortal publication is not immediately purchased (at a carefully calculated “discount” for a limited time only), one cannot always see real value clearly. Also, some unscrupulous publishers do not always inform their prospective purchasers of the original date of publication of some of their reprinted items.

Frederick W. Danker, Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study (Rev. and expanded ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 281.
My rules for purchasing books:

  1. Resist the "herd" mentality.  Purchase books that are proven to be useful and, at least to some degree, timeless.
  2. Don't take the publisher's word for it.  I don't know of any case where Christian publishers are being intentionally misleading.  However, I do realize that they are trying to sell books.  I prefer to purchase, rather than be sold to.
  3. Do your own research:
    1. Is this a reprint of an older edition?  Note that when a publisher purchases the rights to an older title, they will sometimes reprint the same book under a new title.  Likewise, you will find that the same book published in the UK might also have been published in the US under a different title. Always read the copyright page.  This is where you will find this kind of information.
    2. Is this merely a new format of a previous edition (PB or digital)? 
    3. Is this book discounted because the bookseller is being "nice" or because it is an out-dated edition or title?  I've been burned by this a time or two.
    4. Who is the author?
    5. What else has the author written?
    6. Who else has been written on this same topic?
  4. Read a couple book reviews.  Try to find a review that will highlight both the value and the shortcomings of the book.  Prefer scholarly reviews over blogger reviews.
  5. Read the endorsements with a grain of salt.  Endorsements can be both helpful and deceiving.  Authors generally request endorsements from those whom they expect will have very positive things to say.  Also, endorsements are often too short, too general in their descriptions, entirely lacking in criticism, and too glowing in their praise.  Who endorses a book is just as important as who does not.
  6. Always read through the table of contents.  The title and subtitle can sometimes be deceiving or, at least, misleading.  The TOC will give you the length and structure of the book. Look for the addition of extra materials such as appendices, indices, endnotes, and a bibliography.  A good index and bibliography can tell you a lot about the content of a book.
  7. Browse through the book first.  If you cannot find a copy in your local library or bookstore, many books can be browsed online via the major booksellers or at Google Books.
  8. Judge every book by its cover.  Take note of the construction of the book.  In general, publishers are continually looking for ways to keep the cost of printing books low and margins reasonable. More and more, we are seeing cheaper materials being used to produce books.  When it comes to poor construction, you may be better served by purchasing a digital version.
  9. No matter what, I compare prices and shipping costs!

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