Buying Books for My Courses

What do you do if the books for my course seem too expensive?

I am profoundly disturbed by the high and rising cost of college education. Textbook costs, too, are high and rising, and book-intensive classes like the ones I teach involve a real expense for students. I know college students often look for ways to save money on textbooks. But they often don’t know the best ways to reduce the cost of course books while still getting their hands on what they need to learn well. The purpose of this page is to provide some guidance for students who have to make hard choices. But first it’s important to say:

Owning all the books is best.

The point of an English class is to do a lot of serious reading. The heart of any course I teach is reading extensively and carefully. 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 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.

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.

Choose how and what to buy wisely.

You should get your hands on all the books, in good-quality versions, at the start of term. The easiest way is to buy the books ordered for the course at the campus bookstore, which is, at Rutgers, the Barnes & Noble. But if you’re trying to keep to a budget, sometimes buying the stack of new books at Barnes & Noble just doesn’t work. So how do you choose where to save money?

  1. Buy used. The bookstore has used copies, but you needn’t limit yourself to Barnes & Noble. Look at Amazon and Powells for their used books. On my syllabuses, I list the ISBN’s of the books I have chosen—those are often the fastest way to start searching in an online store’s catalogue for used versions of the particular edition I’ve assigned. Then you can look for other editions by the author and title. If you’re lucky enough to live near a big bookstore (Rutgers-NB isn’t, but you might be), sometimes they have good used book sections. The Strand in Manhattan has a big selection of used books, if you pass by there.
  2. Buy cheaper editions. In my courses, it’s normally all right if you work from a different edition of the text. There are good reasons to be choosy about editions, so if you can’t find exactly the same edition as the one on the syllabus, try to find an edition of good quality. I’m always happy to answer questions about this. Older editions by the same publisher are normally more than adequate. Editions aimed at students are often good.
  3. Buy new and sell back, or “rent.” I don’t love this alternative, because it means 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” from Barnes & Noble, which is more or less equivalent to buying used and selling back, but with a guaranteed cost difference at the outset.

Don’t wait to buy the books.

You have to have the books in time to read for them for class discussion. Sometimes students seek to spread out costs by waiting to buy books assigned later on, but you should know that the school bookstore returns unsold books after a few weeks. It’s better to solve the book-cost problem at the start of term. If you do find yourself buying a book late, remember that a bookstore can order a book and get it shipped from a publisher for you for free, and often much faster than Amazon or Powell’s.

The library is meant to be used.

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. You can’t rely entirely on reserve books for your work in the course, because you have to share them with everyone. But it is entirely reasonable to use the reserve for some of the readings. In addition, you can often find a different edition of a book in the library and check it out normally. In addition to the Rutgers library collections, Rutgers students can also have books delivered to campus from many university libraries in the region through E-Z Borrow.

E-books are not viable for coursework (yet).

In general, the experience of trying to study a literary text in an e-book format on a Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc., is pretty painful. E-readers and e-book apps are designed, normally, for casual reading, not study: it’s hard to page around, you can’t see much text, it’s laborious to take notes, it’s incredibly hard to turn to endnotes if the edition has any (it almost never does). E-books usually also lose on all the criteria of book quality: typography, editorial scrupulousness, readability. At present, it is not a good “investment” to buy a Kindle or something similar in the hopes of using less expensive e-books for English courses. Maybe someday.

After spending years watching students thrash desperately through texts on their gadgets, trying to keep up with discussion, I decided it would be better to remove the temptation to try. I no longer allow the gadgets in class as a substitute for print books.

Free electronic texts are worth what you pay for them.

If a book was published before 1923, its text is in the public domain, which means anyone can copy it, modify it, give it away, or sell it. Many pre-1923 texts on my syllabuses can therefore be found for free, in one form or another, on the Internet. Furthermore, many in-copyright texts are available in pirated forms that can be easily found.

Whether the free electronic text is legal or not, when it comes to study, it is almost always totally inadequate for the same reasons as e-books are. The most easily-found online texts are typically of bad quality, full of typos at best, bootleg at worst; they will lack notes; they will have no typesetting to speak of. In addition, reading on a monitor is a very hard way to read a novel or a poem. In class, on a laptop, phone, or tablet, a digitized text is very difficult to use; just as I have seen students with e-readers struggle, so too the students with computer texts get desperately lost once the class starts discussing passages.

There are other problems. Public-domain texts are now often being printed and sold through amazon and other online vendors. There are many “editions” that are essentially free texts pasted into a Word document and printed out. Your education deserves better.

Nonetheless, when it comes to pre-1923 publications, it is sometimes possible to get an acceptable text for study by downloading and printing out a good-quality scan of a pre-1923 published book. Though such books do not have all the apparatus that modern editions for students might have (like explanatory notes), they are often of good quality, and indeed, they show you some of what earlier readers of the books you are studying saw. The Google Books project scanned many, many books in university libraries; these scans (and more, from other scanning projects) can be accessed through Google, but they are better reached via either HathiTrust or the texts section of the Internet Archive, both of which have superior searching, viewing, and downloading functionality. Also, though Project Gutenberg is very uneven, some of their free texts are prepared with adequate care. I find it much harder to read the “plain text” from Gutenberg than a scan of a printed book.

Because the problems of on-screen texts for class discussion are so acute, I no longer let students work from even the best digitized texts unless they can bring a printout to class. Experience has taught me that students who try to go entirely paper-free always do badly when it comes to papers as well as discussion participation.

It is of course true that having a searchable text can be very, very useful for paper writing (and 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.

Conclusion.

Though there are ways to reduce some of what you pay for textbooks, please remember that your own liberal education is something worth putting your resources into: not just money but time, cognitive effort, and emotional effort too. And in a good university course, the books will be worth having and worth returning to. 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, as about so much else, weigh not just the short-term dollars and cents but your own sense of long-term value. 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.