Has anyone else noticed the number of new Civil War books that includes Jay Winik’s endorsement on the jacket? I find this to be very curious. As many of you know Winik published a very successful book back in 2001, titled April 1865: The Month That Made America. It sold well and made the short list of notable titles for that year in a number of publications. I enjoyed the book as it emphasized the importance of contingency during the final year of the war – a topic that Dimitri has been blogging on in recent days. Winik went a little too far interpreting Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in reconciliationist terms, but all in all it was a solid effort. As far as I know this is Winik’s only book on the Civil War and as of today there is no indication of anything forthcoming. This raises the question of how and why certain people are asked to provide endorsements for new titles. Is it simply a matter of popularity? What qualifies someone to endorse a book? Have they read the book thoroughly? It’s hard to imagine that Winik and others have read through all of the titles they endorse. One is left with the belief that it reduces down to popularity. While I respect many of the names on the back covers, I rarely take their endorsements seriously. The danger is that positive endorsements by high profile names has the potential to distract potential consumers.
The best way to preview a book is to spend a few minutes reading the preface and acknowledgments. Look to see who the author cites for reading various chapter, offering suggestions, or sharing information. Check out the bibliography to see if the author utilizes archival sources and make sure the author is aware of the relevant secondary literature. Bibliographies (especially the archival sources) tell the reader a great deal about the seriousness of the research and the amount of time spent on the project.