The Incredible Vanishing Book

Christopher Conway knows why traditional publishing models aren't working, but he writes that scholars should still resist a bit -- and mourn what is being lost.

November 3, 2008

We don’t know how soon it will happen, but it is happening and it will be consummated soon. The commodity of the book, as we have known it for the last few decades, is vanishing and being replaced by new electronic media. Paper-and-binding books have irrevocably begun to fade away as products of mass consumption and will soon transform themselves into curios like vinyl records. The age of the massive emporium bookstore is coming to an end under the crushing, virtual weight of the Internet. Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader is doing well and it promises to get better and cheaper in the future. Textbook companies have developed publishing platforms, like, for textbooks to be digitally delivered to students through a price-per-chapter system. And worst of all, if you’re a paper-and-binding book lover such as myself, people are reading less paper than before.

In the diverse, mostly Latino first generation student population that I teach, responses to the paper-and-binding book are often mediated by practical economics. A few years ago I assigned Antonio Skármeta’s beautiful, hardcover children’s book about dictatorship, The Composition,to a Latin American literature class. The Spanish edition I assigned cost about $25, which I didn’t consider to be too much, especially because the total cost for all the books in my class was under $70. All but one of the books I assigned were books that I thought were beautiful as artifacts and as stories. These books, I believed, would command students’ minds and hearts to such a degree that students would want to keep them after the class was over. Most of all, Skarmeta’s book, with its color illustrations and poignant lessons about life and death issues was a book that I was excited to teach to my students. When we got to discussing the book in class, several of my students did not have the book, only black and white photocopies because they could not or did not want to buy the book. I felt a strange mix of powerlessness, disappointment and distance. I had conscientiously made my class inexpensive compared to other classes, but it was not inexpensive enough.

Lest you think that this was an isolated situation, a few examples from one of my current classes come to mind. I have one student who has not bought any of the books on the syllabus because he reads the 19th-century classics I have assigned off of the Internet on his laptop, which he brings to class for discussions. Another student has already begun returning the books we’ve read in class so far, after confirming that they would not be covered in the final exam. A third student, a talented and curious young man who arrives to class with an ipod plugged into his ears, is a graduating senior who had never read a novel before my class. They are all bright, responsible and hard-working students but they are not consumers of books. This is also reflected in the reaction that dozens upon dozens of students have had upon entering my office over the years and noticing my 5 or 6 huge bookshelves full of books. They ask: “Have you really read all of these books?” Which sometimes leads to an interesting conversation about my library, in which I explain which parts are my teaching reference and which parts are the books that I’ve read cover to cover.

The fate of the book in the university classroom is impacted by many factors: the use of instructional technology, the economics of textbook publishing and the pedagogical idiosyncrasies of professors, who either promote the disappearance of the paper-and-binding book or try to reinforce its value in the classroom. Let’s look at each one of these factors for a moment. Naturally, in some contexts and disciplines, it is relatively easy to teach a class without books thanks to the wealth of realia and sources on the Web, whether they be freely available, or available through institutionally subscribed databases. In fact, I find great material online and value its role in my courses. I think that we can agree that some material may be best taught off of the Internet.

The economics of textbook publishing is a little bit more complicated and ties in with the surprising choices some faculty members make as teachers. The bottom line is that a lot of textbooks are just too expensive for what you get. There are certain kinds of textbooks, ubiquitous in certain disciplines, that have become monsters of paper and color, a carnival of colored insets and attention-getting graphic design and layout. They are alternately exciting or stupid, but always exhausting. Worst of all, they are dreadfully disposable. The dizzying rate at which one edition substitutes another so that a publisher can make a profit or stay in business makes these books as valuable and as enduring as colored photocopies. This wasteful, pathetic cycle is the best argument for doing away with over-saturated textbooks altogether and going to an online, subscription model.

Other textbooks are more modestly priced and dispense with the graphic fireworks and multiple editions. These thoughtful anthologies or edited volumes are reasonably priced and straddle the border between textbook and stand-alone book. You can see their classroom application immediately but you can also see these books sitting on a public or university library shelf, and yes, even resting on your average reader’s night table. These books are the innovative work of professors, not a corporate marketing team, and are designed for other professors to use in their classes. Although reasonably priced, you would be mistaken to think that all professors value such books. Many professors will spend countless hours putting together elaborate and voluminous course packets of photocopies for classroom use (I used to be one of them). And now, it is more frequent for technologically minded teachers to file-share large numbers of PDFs through password protected sites on campus. This is so wrong it hurts. We are killing our own chances to have readers in the future or be remunerated for the scholarship we do. It’s not only about the modest royalties that faculty authors may or may not receive, it’s about the principle of valuing each other’s scholarship and editorial work. I order good, attractive and useful paper-and-binding books or textbooks for my classes because I want there to be a system in place to support my work as an author and editor in the future.

If the paper and binding book vanishes as a dominant commodity, as it seems to be, maybe the new virtual system of book distribution, reproduction and delivery will allay some of the problems I describe in relation to photocopies and PDFs. It is becoming increasingly easier to put together affordable ‘readers’ or anthologies culled from existing print material without bypassing rights and fees and without overloading students with unnecessary expense. If this wave of the future takes hold and becomes the new standard in textbook publishing, I think it will be good for all parties involved. But what about the paper-and-binding book? Say you are teaching David Copperfield by Charles Dickens and you had a choice between an excellent paper-and-binding edition by a major academic press, with useful footnotes and front matter, and an electronic edition that students could download to their handy e-book readers, along with selected secondary articles you have selected for them to read? What if their e-book readers had a stylus and/or a network that enabled the class to annotate those assigned texts, and share them over the class network? I don’t think anyone’s nostalgia for paper-and-binding can replace the pedagogical value of my not-so-fanciful or far-fetched e-book scenario.

And yet I am sad about the fading of the paper-and-binding book and I am not going into the good night without putting up a good fight. I am committed to making the cost of my assigned books affordable. I order my books with care and I try to use them in their entirety, so that students get affordable books that are actually used in the class. This does not mean that I limit myself. I do use the occasional supplement (or two or three) and I share with my classes my disagreements with the books or textbooks that I am using. I continue to pick books that I believe are worth keeping and treasuring, both for the words they contain and for their tactile beauty as works of art and design. I want the books that my students hold in their hands to have the heft of what is important and of what is beautiful. I want that student who never read a novel before my class to value the physicality of the reading a paper-and-binding book. This endangered act, after all, will connect him to a centuries-old, vanishing tradition that has touched the lives of millions and altered the course of history on many occasions. That’s just too good to pass up.


Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages and faculty co-chair of the University of Texas Arlington One Book Reading Program. He is currently editing a book designed for classroom use that will be very reasonably priced.


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