By Robert Nagle

The older I become, the more I seem to enjoy reading about books than actually reading them. Why do people read about books?

Books are plentiful, and our time on this earth is limited. People need some method for picking and prioritizing what they read (or in general what they do with free time). The youthful reader is inclined to read indiscriminately, favoring whatever was unavailable at libraries or forbidden by parents.

By early adulthood it dawns on people that reading time (or time in general)  is a precious commodity. Even if you are lucky enough to find a career that requires a significant amount of reading, there never seems to be enough time to read what  you really want. If you spend too much time on books that are crap (a highly significant amount) there is less time to read great and powerful stuff.

Some degree of serendipity is crucial for discovering good reading material¹, but at some point you have to  find some method that will keep exposing you to  great reading material.

I’ll devote a series of blogposts to such methods. For this one, I shall discuss an overlooked resource when  trying to decide what to read:  the annotated bibliography (abbreviated as AB for this essay).

Annotated Bibliographies (ABs)

Despite my love for reading, I could never imagine reading an AB —much less writing one – except under duress in high school English class.

bugle-boy-cover3-cropped-smallerA year ago, though, I decided to make an annotated bibliography (AB) about Civil War fiction as an afterward for a Jack Matthews ebook my company was publishing.  It turned out to be an all-consuming project; truthfully just proofreading everything turned out to be a nightmare.  Nonetheless, I think the result was an admirable (and useful) contribution to the genre.

It’s important to distinguish between a bibliography (which is a mere listing of titles in alphabetical order) and an AB (which not only lists the items, but also describes  why each source is interesting or important). A good AB (and honestly, most of them are good!) is usually worth reading on its own.  A few days ago I read two print  annotated bibliographies of Texas history. Delightful and fascinating!  Frankly, these two books revealed new books that I never could have found by looking in library catalogs or checking   bibliographies of other history  books.

Perhaps print bibliographies don’t translate well  to web browsing, but AB’s have been on the web for over 20 years. Starting from the 1990s, you would find them everywhere as Description Lists  or (DL) in HTML. That was back when Internet search was iffier and you relied on links pages maintained by human editors to help you find what you wanted. These pages were usually static HTML and more focused on creating paths to other helpful resources. (Alas, nowadays, it seems that most websites aim to trap you or force you to sign up for a newletter or give them  your credit card).

Even today, the sort of bibliographies which you find on Wikipedia just list book titles and possibly web resources. Nothing is wrong with that of course, but in an age of excessive information, we don’t need to know every work on a topic; we would just like to know which works contain the best information or are ideal for beginners or have the best photographs (etc.) Let’s use  my Civil War bibliography to illustrate how ABs  work and what they offer for readers.

Why annotated bibliographies are awesome

First, ABs don’t try to cover everything in a field — just the most interesting things (or the most interesting things that the preparer has encountered). My Civil War fiction AB tried to hit the big landmarks, but there is no doubt that this list overlooks many worthy works. Often the selectivity of these resources make it more helpful to the reader.

Second, I tried to subdivide the huge list into several smaller categories (containing no more than 20 titles). Also,  I ordered the categories in a way to give certain works more prominence (i.e., Critical Overview and Classics).

Third, in addition to arranging works by category, I decided against listing them alphabetically.  For the most part, I arranged works by date of publication — although this perhaps can be somewhat disorienting. But it isn’t hard to search for the name of an author or a title in a web browser.

Fourth, this may not be obvious, but I don’t have any special expertise in the area of Civil War fiction. In fact, I have read surprisingly little Civil War fiction (though I will be correcting this deficiency soon).  Mostly I just did background reading, found some useful bibliographies (both in print and online) and then combined everything.  I found several notable critical studies of Civil War fiction and just listed most of the fiction titles discussed in them. In the 1990s there was a special award specifically for Civil War fiction, and so I list all those titles. By reading book reviews and comments on Amazon, I tried to include a fair summary as well as context (i.e., was this first of a series? Is there anything notable or unique about the author or the narrative angle? Did it win any awards? Was it made into a movie? )

Fifth, I listed data about the books which might be useful for certain readers. I tried to identify which works were already in the public domain. I also indicated lexile scores for books geared toward younger readers. (Lexile is a method of measuring the relative difficulty of a text and is used by teachers).

Sixth, online bibliographic resources can remain flexible in format. (This is something that the Wikihow article on ABs acknowledges).  I looked at various style guides  before making my AB. Then I realized that there was no need to give complete citations as required by MLA or Chicago Style Guide. (Besides, it would increase the prep time.) Generally, publication  data is reasonably easy to locate from and other places.

Date of publication is relevant because it indicates which works are in the public domain (and can be downloaded for free). I debated whether to include links to Project Gutenberg (PG) or or or Wikipedia, but in the end I decided to keep  hyperlinks to a minimum. I did this mainly because I was making this bibliography for an ebook and worried that putting links here would just create  linkrot. It’s hard to predict how long Project Gutenberg or other web projects  will be able to maintain its URLs.

This bibliography is (relatively) noncommercial. I stuck a small ad for a Jack Matthews title published by my company, but aside from that, it’s a static page unlikely to change (unless I forget to pay my hosting charges!) In contrast, you can find lots of listicles about Civil War fiction and Civil War books. All are interesting and helpful and written by people with interest or expertise on the subject.

But listicles are a form of abbreviated journalism and  rarely  systematic. A good features writer can sniff out enough notable books in a field to make  a listicle, but often they are skewed towards newer books and books which are in the public eye (rather than books which are actually interesting or important). Sometimes publications can go offline or migrate to a different software platform — thus disrupting the continuity of URL addresses. Biblio-listicles  reside in an online world subject to various pressures (technical and commercial).

It would be easy for a wiki site to facilitate the production of ABs. But such bibliographies are better produced by individuals (or small groups of like-minded individuals). I doubt that you can set  criteria for group editing  which are reasonably fair or neutral to all contributors. Wiki software helps in producing the ABs, but the neutral point of view (NPOV) philosophy  and notability criteria  used by Wikipedia isn’t really  compatible with the individual quirkiness which make annotated bibliographies so special and interesting.

You would think that the proliferation of citation tools and content management systems would mean that ABs would be everywhere online. That is definitely not the case. Maybe in the 1990s when human editors cataloged web resources, this might have been true. Since then, Google Search and Wikipedia articles have taken over, worthy tools, but skewed in their own ways. Google Search can be gamed fairly easily while Wikipedia seems dedicated to  listing resources without trying to assess their value. (If you don’t believe me, try browsing through this top level category of Wiki bibliographies and try to find anything actually useful.)

ABs are not easy to find using search engines. Every time I try Google to find a good annotated bibliography, the search results consist mainly of commercial products (some of whom are not even available for individuals!) When I try googling a more specific topic for an annotated bibliography, the pickings are usually slim.  Interestingly, it’s not as hard to locate ABs on abstract philosophical topics. Check out this   Chinese philosophy  AB or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to see what I mean.

chinese-bookOnline bibliographies have other problems. First, they tend to be database-driven, which means that the view in the browser is often truncated or chunked in an unusable way. Database-driven bibliographies offer advanced sorting and filtering capabilities and occasionally annotations, but their selection criteria might not match your own. For example, which resource in a list of 50 or 100  should you check first? Second, many of these tools cater to institutional customers and not  open to public surfing.

Take for example the Oxford Bibliographies Online. Sounds and looks promising, but wait! You have to log in, and your institution has to subscribe. If your institution doesn’t subscribe to such a service or if you don’t even belong to an institution, you’re out of luck.

Many of the best AB’s are in book appendices (i.e., not online).  Again, there is a lot of segregation between users who have institutional accounts (and better access to bibliographies and ebooks) and users who don’t.

While I compiled material for my Civil War AB,  not having access to most of these academic services severely limited what I could find online.

On the other hand, print versions of academic books from my city library often had ample  bibliographies in their appendices. (Perhaps they were not ABs, but they were still very useful.)

This leads to my final question: If many academic books contain ample and carefully crafted  ABs in the appendix, why don’t more authors simply repost the appendix online?

Robert Nagle was a TeleRead regular years ago. This is the first of a series of posts on public domain classics.


1  I actually think contemporary readers need to be more adventurous about what they read, even if it means having to struggle through crap once in a while. Indie publishing is flooded with perfectly interesting books which don’t win awards or get reviewed in notable places. This tendency to seek only books by award winners or books  have been widely praised  is perfectly understandable (and results in a higher probability that you will read a  winner),  but it also eliminates the thrill of discovery and also keeps hidden many remarkable literary works. It also lets you read with auto-pilot turned on; you are not really trusting your own judgment but instead simply trying to validate whether your opinions match what the critics have said.  My solution is to  download  and read a lot of first chapters and later abandon a lot of books after that. Sure, you can’t judge every book by a single  chapter, but at least I’m giving a lot of unknown authors a chance to enter my brain.

(If you know of any annotated bibliographies online to recommend, feel free to list them in the comments).