One of my favorite pastimes is walking into a bookstore down the history isle, and browsing through the titles. Common wisdom tells us to never judge a book by its cover, but I’d like to argue(at least posit) that one can judge a book by its title, at least when speaking of history and nonfiction.
In the most visually accessible areas are the books meant for the mass market, sounding something like “A History of the World”, or “World Civilizations”, trying to sound as vague as possible to cover all bases. This also has the effect of setting them up for failure. Usually, any book calling itself something along the lines of “A History of the World” might feature the usual fare of going through the classical age, fall of Rome, Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Crusades, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, if thorough. However, the book might devote an entire chapter to French revolution but a grand total of 4 pages to the entirety of Imperial Chinese history.
Along side are the Pop history books which usually hinge on a gimmick (eg. A History of the World Through 12 Different Shoes) or crediting the fate of the world on an event or the actions of single person (eg. How Genghis Khan Saved the World and Was Your Daddy). Any book with a gimmick might be fine for some light reading, something just to occupy your mine, and fill it with some random facts you can pull out at your next dinner party. But whenever a book tries to emphasize how a certain person of event changed the world or how one idea can predict history, it usually comes with the baggage of the author’s own biases and deficits.
If any real book comes close it would have to be “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”, which attributes everything from religious freedom to paper money as the Great Khan while conveniently overlooking the massive casualty count and the generational damage he singly imposed on the world. This is not to mention the fact that most of his revelations can only be attributed with the benefit of hindsight, a bias that often blinds readers to the reality of the situation. After all, one can’t blame WWII on Henry Tandey just because he supposedly spared Hitler on the battle field during the Great War. This title and similar ones are like the blight yellow journalism was to the media world, and I suspect they’re ultimately more concerned about sales than one would wish.
A book as ground breaking as “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is a rare sight. Like the Lord of the Rings, Jared Diamond’s seminal work inspired countless minds, and possibly a horde of books attempting to recreate it’s magic. Indeed there are a few gems that followed but I’d steer clear of any book claiming to have the unified field theory of history or anthropology.
So, what then should you look for in a book title? I think the 2 keys are necessity and specificity. The less vague the better, one of the rare cases where sounding pedantic is a virtue. Say a WWII enthusiast/ reenactor needs a resource on the Pacific theater. A book outlining the history of the entire Pacific conflict might come in handy for a quick review or crash course. A book detailing a specific engagement like the Battle of the Coral Sea would be ideal, however, it would require amassing a collection of similar books.
The balance of specificity and volume would be up to you. For example, my current efforts in researching Xenophon’s Anabasis was perfect for buying up any works specifically dealing with the event, but it might be helpful to have a few books that are tangentially related, such as a work on warfare contemporary to Xenophon, and another on the geopolitics of the region at the time. On the other hand, while researching the Celts of Iron age Europe, it proved incredibly helpful to purchase something outlining the entirety of Celtic civilization in Europe, and using the book as a jumping-off point for specific topics and sources, thereby limiting the amout of books you’ll need to by. I ended up with entire libraries for each topic, but I found both approaches to be extremely helpful with my research.
Of course, all this is just my own take on buying books for research, tailored to my own needs and preferences. While it is my attempt to curb my spending on books, my willpower in this department is sorely lacking. Maybe I need to take some time to actually use a public/university library, or just read for leisure.