September 18, 2001
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The Best

An important intellectual problem -- one that the Web should help solve but, so far, doesn't, is finding the best book on a given topic. For example, I wanted to read a biography of Nelson as background to my ongoing affair with O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. I'm reading Wade's Nelson (1978) because my library had it, and because it looks right. But even knowing what a good source looks like requires some expertise: I know to look at the end of the book so see how the writer treats his sources, but unless you've read a lot of history you wouldn't know this trick.

On a campus, you can always phone someone in the appropriate department out of the blue. I do that occasionally even though I'm not an academic. Casual critical discussion is the currency of scholarship, most scholars are refreshingly willing to take a phone call or answer an email, and there's still a dim, collective memory of the time when simply having a Ph.D. was a sufficient calling card among scholars, whatever your discipline.

But it's still hit-or-miss, error-prone, and expensive for everyone.