How do you evaluate a book before buying? If it were from a traditional bookshop, then one scans some pages at least. The art master in my secondary school told his students of a method he had: read page 15 or 16, then flip to page 150 and read that. If the book interests you, then buy it.
But when it’s online buying, what happens? Not every book you buy is from a known author and many online booksellers do not offer the chance to flip through even a few pages. At times, this ends with the buyer getting a dud.
One book I bought recently proved to be a dud. I am interested in the outcome of the civil war in Sri Lanka where I grew up. Given that, I picked up the first book about the ending of the war, written in 2011 by Australian Gordon Weiss, a former UN official. This is an excellent account of the whole conflict, one that also gives a considerable portion of the history of the island and the events that led to the rise of tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.
Prior to that, I picked up a number of other books, including the only biography of the Tamil leader, Velupillai Pirapaharan. Many of the books I picked up are written by Indians and thus the standard of English is not as good as that in Weiss’s book. But the material in all books is of a uniformly high standard.
Recently, I bought a book titled The Rise and Fall of the Tamil Tigers that gave its publication date as 2018 and claimed to tell the story of the war in its entirety. The reason I bought it was to see if it bridged the gap between 2011, when Weiss’s book was published, and 2018, when the current book came out.
But it turned out to be a scam. I am not sure why the bookseller, The Book Depository, stocks this volume, given its shocking quality.
The blurb about the book runs thus: “This book offers an accurate and easy to follow explanation of how the Tamil Tigers, who are officially known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was defeated. Who were the major players in this conflict? What were the critical strategic decisions that worked? What were the strategic mistakes and their consequences? What actually happened on the battlefield? How did Sri Lanka become the only nation in modern history to completely defeat a terrorist organisation? The mind-blowing events of the Sri Lankan civil war are documented in this book to show the truth of how the LTTE terrorist organisation was defeated. The defeat of a terrorist organisation on the battlefield was so unprecedented that it has rewritten the narrative in the fight against terrorism.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The book is published by the author himself, an Australian named Damian Tangram, who appears to have no connection to Sri Lanka apart from the fact that he is married to a Sri Lankan woman.
It is extremely badly written, has obviously not been edited and has not even been subjected to a spell-checker before being printed. This can be gauged by the fact that the same word is spelt in different ways on the same page.
Capital letters are spewed all over the pages and even an eighth-grade student would not write rubbish of this kind.
In many parts of the book, government propaganda is republished verbatim and it all looks like a cheap attempt to make some money by taking up a subject that would be of interest, and then producing a low-grade tome.
Some of the sources it quotes are highly dubious, one of them being a Singapore-based so-called terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratne who has been unmasked as a fraud on many occasions.
The reactions of the booksellers — I bought it through Abe Books which groups together a number of sellers from whom one can choose; I chose The Book Depository — were quite disconcerting. When the abysmal quality of the book was brought to their notice, both thought I wanted my money back. I wanted them to remove it from sale so that nobody else would get cheated the way I was.
After some back and forth, and both companies refusing to understand that the book is a fraud, I gave up.