As students have been returning to their campuses, much has been written and said about the cost of college textbooks. The Wall Street Journal reported in its August 16 issue that textbook prices were increasing at twice the rate of inflation. On August 25 the Chicago Tribune reported that the first year, fulltime student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who must take a range of introductory courses, spends on average $698 for used textbooks or $931 for new textbooks. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on September 2 told about ten college bookstores selling downloadable electronic textbooks.
All of this news was fresh in my head when I started moving everything in our house to have the carpets cleaned. We carried end tables, lamps, dining room chairs, the coffee table, crystal, china, record albums (vinyls), CDs, videos, DVDs, photo albums, high school annuals, and books out of the living room, dining room, and family room into the kitchen, laundry room, and extra bedroom. I found among the books the following:
The American Tradition in Literature, 4th ed. Grosset & Dunlap, 1974.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Revised, vol. 1. Norton, 1968
The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Shorter Edition. Norton, 1970.
The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
These four books used in my literature classes, some of the vinyls, a laundry bag, several letters from friends, a tool for splicing reel-to-reel audiotape (unused for 30 years), my last student ID, and my diplomas are all the physical remains of my six years at the University of Texas at Austin. I did not keep any old clothes or hats; I did not own a camera, so I have no photos; I have replaced my dictionary; I have none of my school papers. I used to claim that I was unsentimental, and I gave away or sold many things as soon as I decided they were of no use to me, but these four textbooks have never been in danger of my tossing them.
In the six years during which I got my bachelors and masters degrees, I owned a lot of textbooks. I recall spending about $100 on books each semester, which was about half of what I spent for tuition and fees each semester - attending the University of Texas in the 1970s was incredibly cheap! The most that I ever spent on a single book was $42 for a thin title required for a library class that the instructor never used; I am still a bit upset over the waste. I bought many used textbooks and sold most back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. When I left Austin, I had few of my textbooks.
I did keep some library school texts for a few years, but I found I was not using them. I donated my AACR2 and Sears Subject Headings to a sale run by the Friends of the Daniel Bonne Regional Library long ago. I do not even remember most of my library school textbooks.
The four books that I still have are special. They are really more anthologies of great literature than traditional subject textbooks and are never out of date. All but the Norton Anthology of Poetry are hardbound and still look good on the shelf; I removed the tattered paper covers long ago. I still refer to them when I have a literature question or when I want to reread a short story or a poem or a play. They were all worth more to me than whatever I paid for them. Only the trade paperback poetry book has a printed price - $3.95.
My favorite is The Riverside Shakespeare, which I remember buying for a course in which we read a dozen of the plays. It was a handsome book that stood out among my ragged collection of textbooks. Even then, I thought that it was something to keep. Every other year or so I find myself reading one of the plays; Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are my favorites. It is still one of the best things I have, which is something to think about as my own daughter goes off to college in a couple years. What will she keep? I wonder.