The Mystique of Research

One thing that many people may not understand about research is that those trained in it are basically learning how to find stuff out.  It doesn’t matter what the subject is, research is a matter of learning what’s available to help you understand that particular subject.  Typically it involves becoming familiar with the classic “standard books” on the topic then branching out.  Even the internet, however, has its limitations when it comes to trying to find out what’s available.  My curiosity extends far beyond the religion I often blog about.  I write about religion because I’ve studied it all my adult life.  When I discover a new area of interest, or rediscover it, I often wonder how to get the salient books on the topic.

Amazon isn’t a bad place to start, but they don’t have everything.  I’ve run searches on its powerful algorithms that come up with no results.  Bookfinder.com is great for locating out of print material, but it also depends on you knowing what to search for.  WorldCat and Google Books also help.  The one thing you really need, however, is time.  Research requires a lot of time.  You find a book on the subject and read.  Then you look up the sources the author used.  Search the names of other authors to find out what they’ve written.  Watch publishers’ catalogues for the new books they’re producing.  Read journals to see who’s writing on what.  It’s like a never-ending treasure hunt.  It’s beguiling and addictive.  But it’s limited to few full-time—those who are paid to find things out.  The rest of us make what time we can.

Prior to the internet we had, it seems, a lot more certainty.  Much of that certainty was false, but it was nevertheless firmly believed.  Many people despise researchers because they challenge what we’ve always believed about the world.  As if the truth were known x number of years ago and hasn’t changed at all since then.  We want things to stay the same—we want our wallets in the same place we’ve always put them so we can find them when we need them.  Then your told there’s new, virtual currency but you have to mine it.  I know many people who don’t even own computers.  Research opens new worlds, but not all people are natural explorers.  Some prefer to stay close to home and near to the certainties they learned growing up.  Others are restless and have to learn more.  And perhaps go places where we don’t even need our wallets.


Feeling Used

It may be perverse of me, but it makes me happy that used copies of all my books can be found on Bookfinder.com.  I discovered Bookfinder many years ago and it is a wonderful site for cash-strapped ex-academics, or anybody who loves books.  There is almost nothing you can’t find here.  Some of the books are very expensive (if they’re rare), but generally you choose the condition you’re willing to accept and how much you’re willing to spend.  The other day I was looking for a research book there and decided to type my own name in, just for fun.  I suppose some authors, having received next to no royalties, might be upset to find themselves on the used market.  For others it’s a kind of validation that their books are overpriced.

I’m a book keeper.  (Not, I hasten to add a bookkeeper.)  If I read a book I want to be able to refer to it again.  That’s one, but not the only, reason I don’t quite trust ebooks.  I’ve had electronics die on me and they can cost many books’ worth of dollars to replace.  Even then you can’t be sure some software upgrade hasn’t deleted the content you paid for.  At least sitting on a shelf you can find an actual book again.  I know some people prefer to read a book and then set it free—a kind of read and release method.  I suspect some folks buy used books just to sell them.  Still, to know that books are available is cause for celebration.  We may survive this after all.  At least our words will.

Bookfinder has been a lifesaver for us independent scholars who don’t have university library privileges or research expense accounts.  The collections of books individuals amass are as unique as the person her or himself.  A family friend was once won, I’m guessing, by visiting us years ago and saying, “You’ve got interesting books on your shelf.”  (In that apartment shelves covered all available wall space in every room except the bathroom.)  Having books around is kind of like having kids.  Some are new, some adopted.  A few you’ve even produced yourself.  They make you glad when they’re around.  Bookfinder occasionally has items that not even Amazon can find.  It doesn’t sell books directly, but puts you in touch with vendors who work with vendors who actually have the goods.  It’s all very complicated but it works.  It actually seems to showcase one of the things the internet does particularly well—puts people in touch with actual books, to be read offline.


In Praise of Paper Maps

One of the tricks, I’ve mentioned before, for getting around accessing books I can’t afford, is the used book market.  Now Amazon is probably just about as bad for small business as Walmart is, but it does seem to have its logistics down.  (Most of the time, anyway.  Early in the fall I ordered some horror movie DVDs.  One of them was out of stock and Amazon eventually sent me a notice that it was lost in shipping.  Would I like another, at no extra charge?  Shipped to the same address?  Of course I said “Yes!”  But they shipped it to my mother instead.  Most of us are probably embarrassed about what we watch and don’t want our mothers to know.  In any case, she had it forwarded on and I received it a mere two months after ordering it.)  They also let you track it.

If, however, you buy used books from Amazon, you may need to go with a separate vendor’s shipping.  (I tend to use BookFinder.com, but lately it’s been routing me back to Amazon.)  So it was I ordered something with a projected delivery date of October 25–29.  Not too bad.  It’s not like I need it for a book I’m writing or anything.  I was cheered, then, when on October 14 it was tracked to Secaucus, New Jersey.  I used to go through Secaucus every day on the bus.  Twice.  Surely I would have my cheap source before the 25th!  But my package likes Secaucus, apparently.  Once it got there every day the USPS tracking system assured me it hadn’t moved at all.  “You signed up for delivery on October 25–29 didn’t you?  Well, you’ll get it then.  Perhaps.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if shipping had the option of “Your package is pretty close, do you want to collect it yourself?”  Then on the 22nd I learned it was in Glendale Heights, Illinois.  It arrived on the 25th.

Why do I write these things?  (This isn’t the first time, young man!)  It’s because I think they’re funny.  To me, a society that has lost its heart to technology has to be ready for some laughs now and again.  (Some of my critics think I’m complaining; I guess I need more irony in my diet.)  Life during a pandemic has become one of having stuff shipped.  From last year’s toilet paper from China to my current academic book that’s just too expensive to buy new, I sit with my ear cocked for the Amazon footstep on my front porch.  And occasionally getting into my car to drive to a distant post office just because, well, it’s easier for me to find them than for them to find me.