Students, Keep Your Books

Paul T. Corrigan urges professors to educate their students about how the value and power of textbooks can endure long after graduation.

June 3, 2016

“We can give you three dollars,” the clerk at the campus bookstore told me.

“That’s all?” I asked. I had hoped to get more for the book I wanted to sell back, given what I had paid for it just months before.

“Sorry. It’s not assigned next term.” She shrugged.

“Well,” I decided, “for three dollars, it will look good on my bookshelf.”

That was the moment I kept my first college book.

At the end of every term, college students lug piles of books across campus to sell back to the bookstore (or post the books online to sell directly to next term’s students) for a fraction of what they paid for them. Selling back books is so ingrained in college culture that it seems natural, inevitable. Strapped for cash, most students accept the few dollars joyfully.

But there’s something to be said for keeping books, too. In the years since my own small beginning -- just the one book, just three dollars, just to look good on my bookshelf -- I have developed a lasting commitment to having books around.

These days, as each semester nears its end, I find myself on the losing side of a friendly argument with my own students. I tell them they should not sell their books back. They raise objections:

“The book’s not in my field.”
“I already read it, and I remember what it says.”
“I can always get another copy if I need it.”
“I can find the same text, or the same facts, online.”
“The information will be outdated soon.”
“The edition will be replaced with a new one soon.”
“I want to put this class behind me!”
“It’s too expensive to keep. I need the money.”

I do my best to respond. Then, of course, the students make their own decisions. I’m afraid I’m not very convincing. And I understand why. Most of the reasons to sell back books are quite reasonable. In certain cases, I have to concede the point.

Yes, I do agree, some books are just fine to sell back. I have little fondness in particular for stereotypically textbookish textbooks: repositories of facts, good for exam prep but not for actually reading, likely to be replaced by a new edition in a year or two, apparently written by a committee or a machine, duplicating material available online for free. By all means, students should sell those back.

And, yes, I also agree, some books are too expensive to keep. Costs for textbooks are the primary reason students sell textbooks back, rent them instead of buying, pirate them or simply don’t get them at all. Each year, costs for books increase faster than tuition. A multibillion-dollar industry, bookstores and publishers for college textbooks take advantage of a rather trapped student market. For many students -- particularly students with multiple jobs, loans and responsibilities to young children or aging parents -- just getting books each semester can be a Herculean (indeed, Sisyphean) task. And not selling books back, even if they would love to keep them, can sometimes simply be out of the question. By all means, if it’s keep the books or pay the rent, students should pay the rent.

Accordingly, colleges and universities must recognize that not being able to keep books is a disadvantage faced disproportionately by students from poor and working-class backgrounds. We need to take steps to make books affordable as a matter of social justice. Some have suggested switching to ebooks as a solution. But ebooks can cost just as much or more than used print books and offer less. (Moreover, most students prefer print.) Better ideas include increasing financial aid, reducing the overall cost of college, including books in the cost of tuition, assigning more affordable books and writing our own books and giving them to students for free, among other strategies.

Even with these caveats, I still insist students should keep books. As college teachers, we usually focus more on what students do (or do not do) with books during our courses, not after. But I think we can do more. Just as we would like students to remember what they learn in our courses and to continue learning after the courses have ended, so should we also care that they keep the very books that can help that remembering and learning along.

With the loudest voices (including bookstore advertisements) telling students to sell their books, it’s up to us to teach them otherwise. We can assign books worth keeping. We can help students connect with the books for themselves. We can talk to students about keeping books, telling them something like this:

Keep your books. Not every single one, necessarily, but keep many. Keep most, if possible. Do not let a book go without deliberation. Begrudge the ones truly not worth keeping. Grieve the ones you truly cannot afford. Keep books from your field and from other fields as well. Be well-rounded in your keeping.

Yes, appreciate what the internet can offer (through sites like Project Gutenberg), but also appreciate what books can offer. Yes, some books contain nothing but information with a short shelf life, but keep the books that are not of this sort. Keep books with ideas, argument, voice -- books in which writers say something to readers. Keep books you know you will use again and books you think you won’t, just in case.

Start small, if it helps: keep one book you otherwise would have gotten rid of. Next time, keep two. Keep keeping books until you’ve built a library. Why? There’s value in having books and being the sort of person who has them. This value often outweighs the cost. Sometimes books are even worth a little sacrifice.

Finally, while asserting there’s value in having books, we teachers can also explain just what that value is. We might communicate to students the following points:

Having books around can make a difference in students’ lives. Analyzing decades of data from dozens of countries around the world, sociologists found that the number of books in a home correlates strongly with academic accomplishment for children in the family. Specifically, the more books around, the farther in education the children go. That holds true across time, culture and socioeconomic status. The connection between books and academic accomplishment is so strong, the researchers comment, that there almost seems to be “an intrinsic advantage in growing up around books.”

Of course, merely having books around is “not enough,” they add. One does not imagine books that are just sitting there unread, unnoticed and ignored doing much good. But there is a high “correlation between owning books and reading.” Books offer “skills and knowledge.” Having books around demonstrates “a commitment to investing in knowledge.” Having books around indicates that people in the house “enjoy and value scholarly culture, that they find ideas congenial, reading agreeable, complex and intellectually demanding work attractive.” In a home that has books, it is likely “conversations between parents and their children will include references to books and imaginative ideas growing out of them.”

Students who are (or hope to become) parents should certainly keep books for the sake of the children. But if children benefit from books, no doubt adults do as well. It’s not that books are magical (at least, not in the strictest sense of that word). It’s that deciding to have books and to be the sort of person who has books can change a person’s life and the lives of those closest to them.

Students might want to read certain books in the future. Sometimes students feel finished with a subject once they complete the final exam. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. They do not know what they will want to read or reference in 10, 20, 30 years. But if they have built up a library over that time, it will be all the easier for them to grab the right book when they want it.

Students might want to lend books to someone someday. It is easy for students to ask, “Will I use this book again?” But building a library allows students to be a resource to others. One of my fellow professors calls it a “joy” to have the right book on hand to give to someone. He compares it to the proverbial “word fitly spoken.”

Books can serve as physical reminders of what students have read. Reading doesn’t end when one puts a book down for the last time. Reading ends when one thinks about a book for the last time. When students read enough, they will likely forget not just what they read in certain books but even that they read certain books. “Out of sight, out of mind” applies here.

But so does the opposite. Books as physical objects sitting in plain sight on a bookshelf, glanced at regularly and browsed through from time to time, can remind students of what they have read, keeping that reading alive, active in their minds. (For this to work, of course, books can’t stay boxed up in storage.)

Books can serve as physical reminders of what students have not read. As Umberto Eco and Nassim Nicholas Taleb know, unread books remind people of what they do not know. Some unread books eventually get read. Others don’t. In that way, sitting on bookshelves, unread books can remind students to be both curious and humble.

Books shape the meaning of a place. According to place theory, places are not mere locations; they are laden with meaning. The physical environment of a place shapes its meaning (including walls, doors, furniture, the lack thereof, etc.). What happens in a place also shapes its meaning. So do names, memories, objects and so on. A grass field marked by the lines and plates of a baseball diamond means something different than a grass field marked with tombstones and flowers. The apartment wall lined with books means something different than the apartment wall lined with family photos, band posters, sports memorabilia, works of art, bottles of wine or nothing. Having books around says, “This is a place where thinking and learning are valued.”

Books shape students’ identities. Of course, people are more than their books, degrees, careers, relationships or experiences, more than their thoughts, feelings, even bodies. And yet, these all shape how one lives in the world, the kind of person one appears to be, one’s identity. Having books around says, “I am the sort of person who values thinking and learning.”

Keeping books allows students to return to them over the years. The most meaningful connections people can have with books play out over a lifetime. The weeks or months during a course count as an introduction. That’s enough for some books. Others offer more. Students can return to a book after 10 or 20 years, reread the notes they wrote in the margins the last time they read it, observe how their thinking has changed, see what new layers of meaning they can find in the text at different times in life.

Books are a tangible investment in lifelong learning. College students’ finances vary vastly. It’s not my place to tell students whether they can or cannot afford books. At the same time, I know many students already sacrifice a lot to attend college, as an investment in something that matters to them. All I can add to that is that books are a good investment, too, a real commitment to continue learning long after graduating.

Distinguished scholar bell hooks testifies to this final point. Growing up poor in a patriarchal, segregated town, she learned the value of books from her mother, who had never graduated high school. “Against my father’s wishes,” hooks recalls, “she was willing to spend money on books, to let me know the pride of book ownership and the joy of possessing the gift that keeps on giving -- the book that one can read over and over and over.” Reading books, she continues, “empowered me to journey to places with the mind and imagination … expanded my consciousness … made the impossible possible.”

At the end of each semester, when the line at the bookstore to sell back books is at its longest, one of my dear friends and fellow professors walks by crying out, “Traitors! Traitors!” His joke -- and, of course, he does this playfully -- contains a historical pun. The Latin root of the word traitor, traditor, was the name given to those early Christians who under persecution handed over their sacred texts to be burned by the Roman authorities. The Latin cognate literally means “to hand over.” To hand over one’s books is a betrayal of our common purpose -- although if it’s that or die (or miss the rent), one will surely be forgiven.

We hope students leave college with memories, friends, knowledge, skills and a diploma, and we do well when we remind students to obtain them. We need to add a library to the list. When students sell back their books, they sell back part of their education. I care much more about what books students keep, and what notes they wrote in them, than what courses they passed or what grades they earned. Students’ bookshelves say much more than their transcripts.


Paul T. Corrigan is associate professor of English at Southeastern University.


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