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. 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.

I’ll Be Googled

It’s a strange sensation to do an innocent web search only to find yourself cited.  (And no, I was not googling myself.  At least not this time.)  I was searching an obscure publisher and my own pre-publication book, Holy Horror, came up on Google books.  Now, the computer engineers I know tell me that Google remembers your searches, and this has a way of being unintentionally flattering; when I search for my book it pops up on the first page because I have searched for it before.  Still, it was a bit of a surprise to find myself where I had no idea I’d been cited.  All of this drew my mind back to my “post-graduate” days at Edinburgh University.  To how much the world has changed.

One of the first things you learn as a grad student is you can’t believe everything you read.  Granted, most of us learned that as children, but nevertheless, with academic publishing a new bar is raised.  That which is published by a university press is authoritative.  So we’re led to believe.  But even university presses can be fooled.  This prompts the fundamental question of who you can really believe.  Our current political climate has elevated that uncertainty to crisis levels, of course, and the vast majority of people aren’t equipped to deconstruct arguments shouted loudly.  Where you read something matters.   Even publishers, however, are fallible.  So what am I to make of being cited by the web?  And is my book already available before I have seen a copy?

Even credibility can be bought and sold.  Colleagues make a much better living than me with the same level of training, but with more influential connections.  It was just this reason that I decided to try to shift my writing to these who don’t need credentials to impress each other.  Some of the smartest people I ever knew were the janitors with whom I started my working life.  As a fellow post-grad in Edinburgh once said, professors are always ready to fail you for your lack of knowledge but most can’t tell you what an immersion heater is.  (That’s one of those Britishisms that no amount of graduate courses at Harvard will teach you.)  I suppose when it’s all said and done nobody else will ever search for the obscure publisher that brought my book to Google’s attention.  No matter, at least Google will always flatter me.

Instant Education

Among the “non-essentials” upon which I spend my earnings, books hold the top spot, if not in value, certainly in quantity. Reading is more than a pass-time—it is perhaps the most basic aspect of who I am. I love books. While reading a New Jersey Star-Ledger piece by Allan Hoffman entitled “Learning by the book,” however, an uncomfortable truth dawned on me. Hoffman gently laments that the search for information has gone almost wholly electronic. As a person who currently works in the book industry, I know he’s right. More than that, I know it from my own life. I can’t remember the last time I opened a phone book, other than to retrieve a pressed leaf I’d inserted between its pages for pressing. If some bit of information about a religion or a biblical passage escapes my distracted brain, a few keystrokes work better than shuffling to the shelf, pulling off the reference books, and thumbing through until I find the datum. No, we are all addicted to speed.

Despite the best effort of Google books, much material necessary for research in many subjects remains sequestered in actual books. The problem is, for contemporary knowledge, book production is slow. In my editorial work, and as an erstwhile author, I know that the five years I spend researching and writing a book, the submission time to a publisher, the eventual decision, and then the year or longer production time, all equate to immediate obsolescence. Any non-fiction book is outdated by the internet even before it is shipped from the warehouse. New truths are born at the speed of light while books take years to make. I agree, Mr. Hoffman, we’ve lost something in our idolatry of the instant knowledge. If you need urgent info (What do I do about a snake bite? Where is the nearest Starbucks?) the internet is your up-to-date databank.

I have long known that the study of religions is often the study of texts (most of which are online now). Believing some ancients knew more about the ultimate realities of life than we do, either by dint of divinity or enlightenment, we search the texts about them or by them in hopes of joining them in a knowledge beyond knowing. Now in the age of the internet, new messiahs arise almost daily, proclaiming their truths across the world-wide web of wisdom. I have a feeling there is a dissertation or two in there. Of course, it will take a few years before you’ll see them in print.