Don’t judge a book by its cover . . . judge it by the contents page, bibliography and most importantly the preface.
I get asked to advise a lot of history books and titles for others to read and, to even begin, many factors need to be considered. Do you want an academic work of accurate research or an introductory synopsis, or anything in between? Do you want to read about personalities, like Caesar or Napoleon, or themes, like Gender or Economics? Do you want to begin a love affair with the topic or just some light reading before you move on to something else? The list goes on.
But the trick, I find when having to look and review a book in just a few minutes (as happens at work when a book I have not read is thrust under my nose with the question; “is this any good?), is to know where to look to be able to understand the content without standing and reading it.
The Contents page will show you how the book is structured, it is impossible to hide a chronological narrative as the chapter titles betray this, either by using dates or obvious developments (titles using terms for birth, adolescence, marriage, old age, that sort of thing). Also if the chapter titles are bizarre, like ‘Tiger Force’ followed by ‘Snakes Ears’, this usually describes a period in an individual’s life where these were nicknames or something similar; ergo chronological narrative. If the book is thematically based this too will be evident, using titles like the economy, warfare, gender or the role of women, which it turn will normally mean there is no chronology – this is worth noting if you are new to the area as it is easy to become confused if you do not yet know the relevant timelines.
The Bibliography is vital; every history book must have a chapter called bibliography or references (It will be full of book references, or it will sometimes be a small essay discussing books). Without references the work cannot be verified and followed up, making it highly suspicious – as if it was hiding something (which quite often they are). Look for publication dates within the past 15 years, if there are not many then understand this has been written using very old research (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it is just not as up to date as it could be)
The Preface/Introduciton is normally a few pages long and can be read very quickly. This gives you a sample of their writing style and, more importantly, writers find it hard to hide their biases in this short passage. This allows you to analyse the approach of the writer and highlight potential flaws in the work. It is, of course, only a snap shot but in my experience it has been a reliable signal of the books general direction.
So there you go, ignore the pretty cover, ignore the rave reviews from authors you have never heard of. Have a look at the Bibliography, Contents page and Preface and if it has one, an ‘about the author’ section. This allows you to quickly judge the look and feel of the book as well as the author before you commit to buying it . . . or recommending it.