Sticker Shock Recollected in Tranquility

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Driving home this evening, I heard a story on the radio explaining the economics of college textbooks. Specifically, they are incredibly expensive. I knew this first hand as my daughter just recently began her college career and was required to purchase a math book for $85. It would have cost $185, but she was able to buy an unbound copy, which meant she needs a three-ring binder to hold the loose-leaf pages together. It’s difficult to accept the fact that my daughter is old enough to be in college, and the cost of her textbooks isn’t helping to alleviate my anxiety about it.

According to the reporter, the price of college textbooks has doubled in the last ten years. Interestingly, the average amount students spend on those books has declined over the same period. As the prices rise, students are looking for ways – including unbound editions – to avoid paying full price. While the Internet has made it easier to illegally download cheap bootleg copies of the latest Econ 101 textbook, the less criminally minded undergraduates are employing other thrifty tactics. In my day – which was 25 years ago – buying used copies of textbooks was the only cost-cutting strategy available. I suppose I could have shoplifted from the university’s bookstore, but it’s a small campus, and I’m pretty sure they would have cracked the case rapidly.

The latest in collegiate frugality is textbook renting, in which you pay a fee to get a copy of the book for use during a semester and then return it. Also, more textbook publishers are moving to e-book formats, which tend to be cheaper than printed books. While, as a cheap person, I can certainly appreciate the reluctance to spend a lot on textbooks, I find the trend towards rentals and e-books disheartening. The college bookstore was how I built my personal library.

Over the course of four years, I made the majority of my book purchases based on the syllabi of my English courses: The Riverside Shakespeare, The Norton Anthologies (American and English), D.H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and more. The authors and poets on my shelf are as important to me as the metal musicians I love and the slow-cooked barbecue meals I prepare for friends and family. I never considered returning them for bookstore credit. I carefully placed them – alphabetically by author – on my bookshelves and take great pleasure in looking upon them. When I look at those shelves I am transported to a world of ideas and feelings, to Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” When I hold one of those used college textbooks in my hands, I fall into Wallace Stevens’ poem:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

Granted, I majored in Literature, so the majority of “textbooks” I needed for class were classics of Western literature. I wanted those books. If I majored in math, I might not be quite so enamored of the textbooks. I imagine I would have spent most of my money on a really good calculator. My math-minoring brother seemed quite smitten with his calculators, but I don’t think he has any math textbooks on his shelf. Perhaps he would like a lovely first edition unbound copy of Algebra 101. I bet my daughter will give him the three-ring binder at no extra charge.

My friend Kurt waxed eloquently about printed books in a recent blog post. I encourage you to read it. Alas, his blog is only available electronically.

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3 thoughts on “Sticker Shock Recollected in Tranquility

  1. I’m with Kurt!
    “Readers who read from printed material–books–score higher in several areas including empathy, an item I find particularly interesting.”
    Anything that increases empathy in this world is a good thing ~ even if I have to pay $5 bucks more for it!
    Try sharing an ebook – it’s a pain in the A$$! I like to share my books and build that shared world with my friends!
    And what about notes in the margins ~ you can make notes on the eReaders, but it’s not the same and then you have to remember where they are and flip through the thing rather than just heading to the dog-eared page!
    Long live the printed book!

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