Lured by the temporarily low price of $2.99, I considered considering buying Michael D. Fayer’s Absolutely Small: How Quantum Theory Explains Our Everyday World. The “consider considering” is a preliminary step to actually considering buying a book. It establishes the necessary but not sufficient conditions for making book purchases by assessing a) how sane is the author, and b) how credible/authoritative is the book. b) is a conditional assessment; a book gets to b) only if it passes a) satisfactorily*.
So I put M. Fayer through the wringer, so to speak. This consisted of looking up his professional affiliations and what else he may have published. M. Fayer is properly Professor Fayer, a full professor of chemistry at Stanford University. One doesn’t speak from a more prestigious and sanity-vouching platform than that.
On the other hand, it is a bit odd that a professor of chemistry should have written two books on quantum mechanics — Absolutely Small having been preceded by a textbook on the same subject published in Oxford University Press. In my unenlightened layperson’s eyes, quantum mechanics seems strictly a subject for physics professors, but I concede that this factor in itself doesn’t deliver any policy implication for us.
So we move on to step b), having satisfactorily answered a) in the affirmative. We now need to figure out how good Absolutely Small is likely to be. Towards this end, I read the Kindle sample or the introduction to the book. This too seems OK. I still don’t even begin to understand quantum mechanics, but the introduction gives some hope that a layperson may aspire to such a goal.
Last but not least, I checked out who the publisher of Absolutely Small is. This is no doubt a snob’s way of vouching for quality, perhaps much like checking out the brand on an article of clothing. I recognize my snobbery, but a book is a substantial time investment and without the shortcuts of reading reviews and relying on the signals of being published by a big-name house, one would be paralyzed with the array of choices, the mountains and oceans of books clamoring attention.
In any case, this is where it gets interesting with Professor Fayer’s book. It turned out that Absolutely Small is published by AMACOM a division of American Management Association (AMA). Recognize that publisher? I didn’t. AMA, however, helpfully provides this description of itself in the book
A talent developer, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success? A world leader offering a complete range of products and services including government solutions? A mission of improving performance through experiential learning for professional growth? What business does such an organization have for publishing a book on quantum mechanics? What can be its editors’ expertise for shepherding to fruition physics books? While it’s possible that AMA possesses such expertise, nothing in how the company chooses to pitch itself assures me of this. AMA and its arm AMACOM do not seem to be in the business of academic or academic-trade publishing; instead they seem to be in the business of being business-oriented. In its own words, AMACOM “publishes non-fiction books on business, management, leadership, HR, training, communications, career growth, personal development, marketing, sales, customer service, project management and finance“. What then are they doing with Absolutely Small: How Quantum Theory Explains Our Everyday World? How do I feel about such a book put out by such a publisher? Do I think differently of Absolutely Small than a similar book put out by, say, Oxford University Press?
I do. In this case, I bought Absolutely Small nonetheless, but until I finish reading it, I will feel this nagging doubt about its quality because of who the book’s publisher is. More generally, because of the sheer volume of books being published, it’s difficult at times to separate the “drain off from sewage pipes” from worthwhile books. What mechanisms do you guys have for making sure that you don’t accidentally step into sewage when selecting your reading?
*: I have an inkling that by the time most of you reach this sentence, you may be questioning the sanity of the author of this blog — me — rather than anybody else’s. I’d just like to have it noted that I think every reader goes through this process, or something akin to it. Whether this last line confirms your judgement of my sanity or not, I’m too removed to know.