College Bookstores

A friend of mine went to price her textbooks for the semester the other day. The campus bookstore wanted almost $400. Instead, she got online and went to Amazon. She got her text books for $130.

I got a bit of vicarious pleasure out of that.

I kept a few of my textbooks. I also saved some money by checking some books out of the library for Philosophy classes. The latter trick didn’t last too long as the professors had a fetish for making xeroxed compilation booklets via Kinkos. It saved the students a little bit of money, but it also kind of sucked. No resale value and you didn’t even have a nice Philosophy book for your bookshelf at the end of the semester. You only had a wad of photocopy paper bound together with a squiggly plastic strip.

I have many memories of spending as much money on textbooks as my friend almost did. I would be happy at the end of the semester to sell the books back for enough cash to buy a nice dinner and a good book to read over the break.

In general, I resent books being so overpriced. The printing press changed the world by making the transmission of ideas cheap. That is the whole point of books. I feel a bit better by remembering a thought a boss’s boss once told me. “You aren’t paying for the paper, you are paying for the information”. Meh, maybe. What about the author who has been dead for a century, but a paperback copy of his book costs the same as a meal at a restaurant?

College textbooks are the ultimate racket. I remember new editions of textbooks being required for a class when a mountain of existing copies of that book already existed cheaply. The content of the books would be nearly, if not 100% identical. The content would be on different page numbers and with slightly different headings so a new syllabus wouldn’t work with an old textbook.

I have no doubt college textbooks will become even worse of a racket with the dawn of eReaders on the horizon. Students will continue to pay $400 a semester, but they will not be buying a book they can keep, sell, loan or read again. They will be renting the information, which will expire and disappear from their eReader at the end of the semester. If that student wants to look up that information someday, s/he will have to pay for the privilege. Then those poor students will hear people like me picking up one of my old paper books, flipping through the book and taunting them by saying such things as “Look, no charge! I read it 3 times in a row! No charge! Big Brother doesn’t even know I looked at the book again!”

For now, in the interim between the past and that even worse future I am happy thinking that the smarter students like my friend can use the internet, at least partially, to outflank the college textbook racket to save serious drachmas.