The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

October 7, 2012

Old textbooks become friends over time


Every now and then, I look up something in a fat little volume titled “Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, Complete Course.” It has been sitting next to my typewriters and computers since 1968.

Sister Rose Angela required her freshman English students to buy it for use in her class at Schlarman High School. I bought my second-hand copy from a sophomore named Susan Kuester.

My bookshelves are sprinkled with other books that started out as my textbooks: a government book from Schlarman; copies of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Walden” and the great British poets; a Great Books series; college journalism texts that focus on reporting, editing, printing and communications.

I didn’t appreciate them at the time, but each has become an old friend.

So I was a bit alarmed, the other day, when I read a USA Today story about how some universities are now forcing students to buy electronic textbooks (“e-textbooks”) instead of traditional textbooks.

The students simply download their texts, and read them on their computer screens.

Textbooks are expensive, so you’d think that would save students a load of money, but it doesn’t. The story noted that an organic chemistry e-book costs $100 while the print version of the same book costs $115.

E-textbooks account for about 9 percent of textbook purchases. Three years ago, Indiana University was the first to force students to buy them for selected courses. Since then, the University of California-Berkeley, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, University of Virginia and Cornell University have done the same.

An e-book may be more efficient and less cumbersome than a real book made of ink and paper. But in the end it’s going to cost students a lot more because they no longer will be able to sell their used books to other students or to the campus bookstore.

And chances are, they won’t be able to use them 40 years after graduation, as I do.

A friend of mine recently showed me her new Kindle, and raved about how wonderful it was to read books on a lightweight, portable computer screen. I’ll admit, it was sort of cool. It would be nice to have if you were reading on a plane, or reading in bed.

I once tried to read a book on a desktop computer screen, and I hated it. It just seemed so confining, so mechanical.

I think I always will prefer real books. I like to hold them and slowly watch my progression as I turn each page. I like their heft and their dust jackets. I like underlining favorite passages, and making notes in the margins. I like settling into my favorite chair for hours of quiet communion with a dear old companion.

I love libraries, old bookstores, and the sense of serendipity that comes from searching through piles of books at yard sales and library sales and finding a bargain.

My life has been changed by a 25-cent book … and by old textbooks that I decided to keep.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at