Buying books

What do you do if the books for my course seem too expensive?

I am profoundly disturbed by the high and rising cost of college education. Textbook costs, too, are high and rising, and book-intensive classes like the ones I teach involve a real expense for students. I know college students often look for ways to save money on textbooks. But often students don’t know the best ways to reduce the cost of course books while still getting their hands on what they need to learn well. The purpose of this page is to provide some guidance for students who have to make hard choices. But first it’s important to say:

You should own all the books.

The point of an English class is to do a lot of serious reading. The heart of an English class is reading extensively and carefully. Reading a lot and making sense of a shelf of related books is one of the most important skills you can learn in an English course.

The books in the course are worth owning. Unlike the big brick textbook in a science or engineering class, only part of which is useful material for the course, the “textbooks” for an English class are your objects of study. These are books you will be glad (I hope and believe) to have on your shelves in ten years.

Good editions of good books are a possession worth having and keeping. Most of the books you will read are available from more than one publisher (or sometimes in multiple versions from a single publisher). These versions are the various editions of a work. Editions vary widely in quality. The quality of an edition for study depends on several things:

  1. The quality of the text: does the book reliably reproduce an authoritative version of the text? Scholars debate what constitutes “authoritative,” and editors make different choices, but a good edition shows signs of being based on a thoughtful choice: it will have a named editor, it will have a “Note on the Text” or “Textual Notes,” it will explain where the words on its pages have come from. A bad edition, by contrast, is one that silently reproduces an anonymous text whose source may be unreliable—or one that mangles a text with errors.
  2. The quality of the edition: I have where possible sought books with good notes and extra materials (chronologies, extra appendices, introductions) that will help your study of the text. These extra materials can make the difference between a baffling book and something you delve into, think about, and analyze with pleasure.
  3. The quality of the physical object: a book that is made to last has a strong binding, good paper, and type that doesn’t hurt your eyes. In a course where you read a lot, this can make a big difference.

Choose how and what to buy wisely.

So you should really try to get your hands on all the books, in good-quality versions, at the start of term. The easiest way is to buy through the campus bookstore, which is, at Rutgers, the Barnes & Noble. But if you’re trying to keep to a budget, sometimes buying the stack of new books at Barnes & Noble just doesn’t work. So how do you choose where to save money?

  1. Buy used. You needn’t limit yourself to the used books at the Barnes & Noble. Look at Amazon and Powells for their used books. On my syllabuses, I list the ISBN’s of the books I have chosen—those are often the fastest way to start searching in an online store’s catalogue for used versions of the particular edition I’ve assigned. Then you can look for other editions by the author and title. If you’re lucky enough to live near a big bookstore (Rutgers-NB isn’t, but you might be), sometimes they have good used book sections. The Strand in Manhattan has a big selection of used books, if you pass by there.
  2. Buy cheaper editions. In my courses, it’s all right if you work from a different edition of the text. As I explained above, there are good reasons to be choosy about editions. If you can’t find exactly the same edition as the one on the syllabus, try to find an edition of good quality. I’m always happy to answer questions about this. Older editions by the same publisher are normally more than adequate. Editions aimed at students are often good.
  3. Buy new and sell back. I don’t love this alternative, because it means you won’t have the books to keep. But both the Barnes & Noble and the online used booksellers will buy back books. If you think you might do this, check used prices online first. Some editions have better resale value than others. I’ve tried to order editions with some resale value for the class, but that hasn’t always been possible. You can also “rent” from Barnes & Noble, which is more or less equivalent to buying used and selling back, but with a guaranteed cost difference at the outset.

Don’t wait to buy the books.

The school bookstore returns unsold books after a few weeks. It’s better to solve the book-cost problem at the start of term. If you do find yourself buying a book late, remember that a bookstore can order a book and get it shipped from a publisher for you for free, and often much faster than Amazon or Powell’s.

The library is meant to be used.

I will put as many copies as the library will let me of each of my course books on reserve at the library for students in my classes. That means the books will be kept in the library for your use. You can’t rely entirely on reserve books for your work in the course, because you have to share them with everyone. But it is entirely reasonable to use the reserve for some of the readings. Sometimes you can find a different edition of a book and check it out.

For the texts you choose to write papers on, you’ll want to own the books.

E-books are sometimes adequate, but mostly not.

E-books (Kindle, Nook, etc.) present some interesting possibilities to students. In general, you’ll find the experience of trying to study a literary text in an e-book format on a Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc. pretty painful. E-readers and e-book apps are designed, normally, for casual reading, not study: it’s hard to page around, you can’t see much text, it’s laborious to take notes, it’s incredibly hard to turn to endnotes if the edition has any (it almost never does). E-books usually also lose on all the criteria of book quality (typography, editorial scrupulousness, readability).

I have now spent several years watching students thrash desperately through their Kindle texts in my classes, trying to keep up with the discussion. It is more or less impossible.

Still, e-books sometimes look like a possible cheaper alternative to buying all the books in paper, especially when Project Gutenberg is offering you a free EPUB file. An e-book version of one of the editions on the syllabus (that is, the e-version from the same publisher of the same edition—more and more of these exist for Oxford World’s Classics and Penguins) is also acceptable for your study, though in my opinion inferior to a paper edition of reasonable quality. Otherwise, e-books are at best barely adequate.

At present, it is not a good “investment” to buy a Kindle or something similar in the hopes of using less expensive e-books for English courses. Maybe someday. But if you already own an e-reader or a tablet, e-books might save you some money, at the cost of the quality of your reading.

Online texts are the last-ditch alternative.

If a book was published before 1923, its text is in the public domain, which means anyone can copy it, modify it, give it away, or sell it. Many pre-1923 texts on my syllabuses can therefore be found for free, in one form or another, on the Internet. But online texts are a last-ditch choice because they don’t have to meet any standards of quality for books, and in fact they almost never do.

Getting what you pay for is a frequent problem with free things online. The texts themselves are typically of bad quality, full of typos at best, bootleg at worst; there will be no notes; there will be, presumably, no typesetting to speak of. In addition, reading on a monitor is a very hard way to read a novel—or a poem. In class, even with a laptop, a digitized text is very difficult to use; just as I have seen students with e-readers struggle, so too the students with computer texts are often desperately lost once the professor and the students start discussing passages. This can be somewhat alleviated by practicing rapid-fire phrase-searching.

There are other problems. Public-domain texts are now often being printed and sold through amazon. Avoid at all costs anything from “CreateSpace” or anything that looks like someone copied a long text into a Word document and printed it out. Your education deserves better.

But all is not lost, in this age of Big Data. If you are trying to save money by looking for free texts, sometimes you can find reasonable possibilities online. The best approach is to look for a good-quality scan of a pre-1923 published book which you can read in PDF (or even print out). Begin with the texts section of the Internet Archive. Google Books has often scanned original editions of the pre-1923 books that we are reading, and those are often just fine—indeed, they can give you some contact with the history of these books, showing you what they looked like to their first readers. Also, though Project Gutenberg is very uneven, some of their free texts are prepared with adequate care. I find it much harder to read the “plain text” of Gutenberg than a scan of a printed book. Another source to try is the Open Library, though that, Gutenberg, Google, and the Internet Archive will largely overlap in what they have in our course readings.

I have included links to the most adequate online texts I could find in my
syllabuses under “Readings.” If you find an online text but I have not linked to it, avoid it or ask me about it.

I keep saying “adequate” because working with online texts is just not as good as paper-and-glue texts in a literature class. They stink for following along in a class discussion, they are annoying to take notes on, they are hard to cite, and they have no notes or other scholarly material. Your work in the class will suffer. And you’ll hurt your eyes.


Despite having written all this about how you can shave off some of the textbook cost for a course like mine, please remember that your own liberal education is something worth putting your resources into: not just money but time, cognitive effort, and emotional effort too. And the books from your college courses are worth having and worth returning to. Keeping the books is one of the most durable ways for you to hold on to the results of your own hard work in college. So when you make your decisions about textbooks, as about so much else, weigh not just the short-term dollars and cents but your own sense of long-term value. Then make the best choices you can.

I am always happy to discuss any aspect of this issue with any student in person or by e-mail. Please contact me with questions.