Why, despite the digital revolution, I spent over $200 on textbooks this term

September 15, 2010

The semester has just started, which means it’s time to figure out how I’m going to get access to the information I have to read for class. (Or rather, it was last week when I started this post, but then I had to, you know read the material once I got access to it.)

Last year, I tried to read as much as possible on the computer, in order to save money. I got the reading materials through a course management system. If you’re a student right now, you can skip this paragraph because you already know how this works, but for those who haven’t attended an institute of higher learning in the past half-decade or so, I’ll explain. The University of Michigan uses a course management system called CTools. (There are other systems in use at other schools, like Blackboard or Moodle.) On CTools, I can log in and follow links to any of my courses, where there will be folders of all the readings available for me to download. These are usually in PDF form, though some are Word documents or HTML files.

One professor even went out of his way to use materials for class that are all available at no cost, including the textbook itself. There is a PDF version of the entire book available from the publisher on-line, and he told us where to download it. I have it on a flash drive.

And yet, I just went out and bought the $45 paper version.

Another professor recommended five books that he said would serve us well in the future; nevertheless, all the readings we have to do from them are available on CTools.

I went to Amazon.com and bought all of those, too.1

I’ve also been using up precious print credits printing out chapters and journal articles that we can’t buy in textbooks off of CTools to read away from my computer.

Am I crazy?

For some reason, I just wanted the paper versions. But it costs money and I am a poor grad student and I don’t have money. Indulging in paper textbooks seems like, at best, a luxury, and more likely, utter foolishness. I mean, I already had the book on my flash drive, for free! A fellow student, who overheard me in the School of Information lounge discussing what I paid for my game theory textbook at the campus bookstore and felt compelled to speak up to tell me where I could get the problems for free, surely thought I was nuts.

So, of course, I pondered this.

And here’s why, after a year of trying to read as much as possible on PDF, I decided this year to just buy the paper versions.

My computer is a Distraction Machine. Though this isn’t the only reason I bought the books, it’s the primary one. I have finally concluded that I cannot successfully focus on my reading assignments on a computer (or at least not efficiently, and I have a lot of reading to do, so I need to be efficient). It’s not because of a personal failing. Well, maybe that too, I don’t know; if so, it’s a common personal failing. But I’d argue that the way the Internet works strongly encourages my mind to function in a certain way when I sit down in front of the computer, and that way of thinking (unfortunately for my attempts at paper and novel writing) does not, by its very nature, promote focus.

That means that I can read more efficiently if I am looking at a document on paper. No matter how much I try to equate the two things—document on paper = document on screen—my mind seems to be interacting with the paper text differently than it does with the screen.

No matter how much technology advances, I expect paper will continue to be better in this respect until they devise a way to put a “check mail” button on the pages of bound paper documents.

That was, as I said, the primary reason. There are some secondary ones: for example, it’s still easier for me to take notes and engage with the material on paper. I believe Adobe and some other companies are working to change this; some friends are already using their products, but in my opinion, the software hasn’t gotten there yet. (At least not with any technology I feel like paying for. The $200 I spent on textbooks could possibly have gone toward that instead, but first they would need to overcome the primary problem of the distraction machine.) Lately, I have become a big fan of not merely highlighting or underlining, but also writing in the margins. Sometimes I put stars and smiley faces. I think I drew a set of triplet frowny faces in a recent book I read at a part that particularly upset me. I remember that book even better for having interacted with it through doodles, rather than just highlighting and notes. Can any digital reader currently do this? Technology will eventually let us, I’m sure, but as far as I know it’s not there yet. I also hear from my roommate, who has had two generations of Kindles, that it’s hard to write in the margins and then combine those notes with other people’s margin notes. This past year, I have discovered that I love having multiple people write in the margins of my nonfiction books.

Also, reading books—by which I mean paper codices—gives me less eyestrain and related headaches when I’m stuck reading them for hours on end. I know e-book readers are working on making this better these days. One day it will probably get better, but paper is still easier on me this way.

So to sum it up, I engage more with paper material, so I retain more. I’m in less physical discomfort when I read it. And, most importantly, I’m less easily distracted, and therefore more efficient. I stay on one train of thought more effectively than I do when I try to read PDFs on the computer.

For those benefits, it was well worth it to me to pay $200 for the luxury of paper. Some who can not afford even this much (let alone the much steeper prices that undergraduates often have to pay for the range of hardcover textbooks they must buy) will be stuck reading in a way that seems to me to be less conducive to learning, but I am fortunate enough to be able to afford this luxury.

Of course, I had to pick that over the price of a smart phone. I’m still a poor grad student, after all.

1 Thanks for the year of free two-day shipping, Amazon! I’m still going to buy my fun books at Borders, but you have successfully earned my textbook business. Except for the game theory text which I bought at the campus bookstore, because it was right there in front of me when I went in. Location, location, location.

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2 Responses to “Why, despite the digital revolution, I spent over $200 on textbooks this term”

  1. YES!!!!!!!!!!

    as a note, I was trying to write an assignment when I found this little nugget. Just lost 20 minutes of work time….

  2. [...] Also, in Nicholas Carr’s blog (he wrote The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, I discovered a study that suggests students learn better from paper texts. Check it out. I’ll be reading that shortly, too. But hey, it’s like I was saying! [...]

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