Buying Books for My Courses

This page gives some advice to students taking my courses—or other courses that, like mine, have a lot of reading—about how to get the assigned books, a task that often causes some headaches at the start of the semester. I think it’s good advice, but then I would, wouldn’t I?

Dear student,

College, which should be free to all, is expensive for most. Textbook expenses pile on top, and you may be looking for ways to save money. Getting the books at the campus bookstore is easy but the costs mount up. On the other hand, some cheap or free alternatives really shortchange your learning. Here are some possible ways you might spend less without learning less. But the starting point is this:

Owning all the books in print is best.

The point of an English class is to do a lot of serious reading. Reading a lot and making sense of a shelf of related books is one of the most important skills you can learn in an English course. The best equipment for reading well is your own personal, physical copies of all the reading in the course, in the editions I assign for the class. Here’s why:

Paper and glue are the best classroom media technology for the 21st century. I’m not joking. Computers, tablets, e-readers, and smartphones are very good for casual reading—entertainment, news, doomscrolling. But classroom reading is not casual. While it could still be fun (I hope), you have to focus, you have to do it on a schedule, you have to take notes, you have to refer to the book during discussion, and you have to go back through the book to find what you need for papers and exams. None of the digital options are well-engineered for this, whereas the bound book is. As a plus, there is no way for you to check Insta or TikTok or whatever on a paper-and-glue book during class. Students who try to do most of the readings for my courses on their phones consistently underperform students who get the physical books.

The books in the course are worth owning. Unlike the big brick textbook in a science or engineering class, only part of which is useful material for the course, the “textbooks” for an English class are your objects of study. These are books you will be glad (I hope and believe) to have on your shelves in ten or twenty years. The best way to take what you learn with you is to take the books with you.

Good editions of good books are worth more than bad editions. Most of the books I teach are available from more than one publisher, or sometimes in multiple versions from a single publisher. These versions are the various editions of a work. Editions vary widely in quality. The quality of an edition for study depends on several things:

  1. The quality of the text. Does the book reliably reproduce an authoritative version of the text? Scholars debate what constitutes “authoritative,” and editors make different choices, but a good edition shows signs of being based on a thoughtful choice: it will have a named editor, it will have a “Note on the Text” or “Textual Notes,” it will explain where the words on its pages have come from. A bad edition, by contrast, is one that silently reproduces an anonymous text whose source may be unreliable—or one that mangles a text with errors.

  2. The quality of the edition. Where possible, I assign books in editions with good notes and extra materials (chronologies, extra appendices, introductions) that help with studying the text. These extra materials can make the difference between a baffling book and something you delve into, think about, and analyze with pleasure.

  3. The quality of the physical object. A book that is made to last has a strong binding, good paper, and type that doesn’t hurt your eyes. In a course where you read a lot, this can make a big difference.

What can you get for free?

Legally, all books published more than 95 years ago are in the public domain, and many of these books are available digitally, having been part of big library collections that were scanned. The best digital choice for books from the 19th and 20th centuries is often to be found in HathiTrust, a giant database of these scans. With your Rutgers login, you can download any non-copyrighted work in HathiTrust in full as a high-quality PDF. Another overlapping big database is the texts section of the Internet Archive. There’s also the non-copyright library of “plain” texts in Project Gutenberg, in a format which is less convenient for study but sometimes an acceptable alternative.

Also legally, some books can be found in online-only editions, either free ones or as part of the Rutgers Library digital collection. There a few gems out there, but by and large these are not great for continuous reading and are more suited for searching or skimming. Searching the Rutgers Library catalog will turn up this kind of book if it’s available.

Less legally, many copyrighted books are obtainable digitally, often simply enough through a Google search. Most of these pirated digital editions are bad and useless because they make no attempt to deliver a good version of the text. Suffice to say that you won’t become an excellent student of Zora Neale Hurston by Googling “their eyes were watching god pdf” two hours before class.

In English classes, the best digital bet is to work from a scan of an early edition, preferably printed out in hard copy and stapled or clipped together. Printing costs something, of course, but reading a PDF of a scanned book on a tablet or even a computer is definitely less convenient, especially in class.

It is of course true that having a searchable digital text can be very, very useful for paper writing. Scholars use searchable texts all the time in their research. The ideal is, when it comes to paper-writing time, to have a good searchable text alongside an excellent print edition. But whereas the latter by itself is still excellent for most kinds of undergraduate work, an electronic text by itself is basically not.

Another thing that is free is the library.

I put copies of each of my course books on reserve at the library for students in my classes. That means the books will be kept in the library for your use, and can’t be checked out for long periods (to ensure everyone can access them). It is entirely reasonable to use the reserve for some of the course readings. Beyond the reserve, you can often find a different edition of a book in the library and check it out for the regular period. And Rutgers students can also have books delivered to campus from many university libraries in the region through E-Z Borrow and U-Borrow.

You can buy books from more than one store.

The easiest way to buy the books ordered for the course is to buy new copies through the campus bookstore, the Rutgers Barnes & Noble. You can equally buy new books online from bookshop.org, which is an intermediary for independent booksellers, or from Amazon, which is a convenient, union-busting, civilization-strangling hypermonopoly. You can also:

  1. Buy used. This can save a lot. The campus bookstore has used copies, but you can also look at Amazon and Powells for their used books. On my syllabuses, I list the ISBN’s of the books I have chosen; use these numbers to search for the particular edition I’ve assigned. Or you can look for other editions by the author and title. If you’re lucky enough to live near a big bookstore, sometimes they have good used book sections. The Strand in Manhattan has a big selection, and they ship.

  2. Buy cheaper editions. In my courses, it’s normally all right if you work from a different edition of the text. Try to find an edition of good quality (see above for what makes an edition “good”). I’m always happy to answer questions about this. On Amazon you can easily get snared by scam editions that are essentially printouts of free scans from the internet.

  3. Buy new and sell back, or “rent.” I don’t love this alternative. It still costs money, but you won’t have the books to keep. Both Barnes & Noble and the online used booksellers will buy back books. If you think you might do this, check used prices online first. Some editions have better resale value than others. I’ve tried to order editions with some resale value for the class, but that hasn’t always been possible. You can also “rent,” which is like going to the library except you pay money for each book.

Don’t wait to buy the books.

Sometimes students seek to spread out costs by waiting to buy books assigned later on, but you should know that the campus bookstore returns unsold books after a few weeks. If you can, solve the book-cost problem at the start of term. If you do find yourself buying a book late, you should know that I am extremely unsympathetic to students who tell me they “just ordered the book from Amazon” on the day they are supposed to have read it. Try the library instead.

Conclusion.

Though there are ways to reduce some of what you pay for textbooks, please remember that your own education is worth putting resources into: not just money but time and cognitive effort. Keeping the books is one of the most durable ways for you to hold on to the results of your own hard work in college. So when you make your decisions about textbooks, weigh not just the short-term dollars and cents but your own long-term values as well. Then make the best choices you can.

I am always happy to discuss any aspect of this issue with any student in person or by e-mail. Please contact me with questions.

Last updated: June 24, 2022.