I was on the way to my campus bookstore between classes to buy some pens.
My life usually contains a lot less excitement than this, but it turned out to be a day of outrage. I found the pens I was looking for and approached the counter to pay for them. It was somewhere between the pen aisle and the counter that my faith in higher education fell through the floor, and my spirit, no, my soul, followed it. I spotted a sign taped to the counter that advised students to free themselves “from the burden of book ownership.” At first I thought that I had misread the sign, or that I was experiencing late onset dyslexia. But no, I had read the sign correctly.
The messages behind signs like this, especially at institutions of higher learning, constitute a clear and present danger to the life of the mind. The message emphasizes that books have become something disposable; they are to be used up and discarded, like a can of soda one drinks to quench a thirst. Books are not a means to an end, but are tangible memories of friendships, flights, loves, sexual encounters, duals and deaths that can be revisited again and again.
The astronomical cost of higher education has presented a series of challenges to college and university presidents and boards of trustees all over the world. Many of these challenges have forced colleges and universities to severely limit the quality of education in favor of a business model whose logic stresses that we (institutions of higher education) do more with less. True, there is a lot of waste occurring in colleges and universities, but most of it does not occur at the classroom level. One aspect of the high cost of higher education is the cost of textbooks. Textbooks are outrageously expensive, and students and parents do struggle to find the funds to cover the costs. In what seems to be a stroke of pure genius, a new program adopted by most university bookstores now allow students to rent their textbooks for a fraction of the price of buying them. On the surface this seems like a sensible plan to cut costs, thus making everyone happy. However, for those of us who teach in the humanities, especially in literature, history, and philosophy, it could limit the long-term educational experience.
As a professor of literature, I hope that my students keep the books that I require in my classes. I never use textbooks, but I require commercial books that are much cheaper. I believe that one of the strongest educational experiences I can impart to my students is the love of books. Hopefully, that love will lead to a long and intense love affair with the written word, and the aesthetic appreciation of the physical book. This past semester I taught Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I was dismayed to see that three or four students had rented the book. I attempted to talk them into just purchasing the novel, especially since it was only around $15, but they would hear nothing of it.
I think we are sending the wrong message with advising students to rent some of the texts that are required in university courses. Renting suggests a disposable, temporary means to an end. Renting neglects the aesthetic beauty that books provide, not only to the mind, but also to the atmosphere of a home. This is something that rented or digital books cannot provide. A house full of books says something about the owner of those books. In fact, I would argue that in the end it’s the books that end up owning the reader. My dismay at seeing the sign advising students to free themselves from the “burden of book ownership” is further compounded by the realization that we are no longer a bookish culture. Perhaps I’m an old fashioned traditionalist when it comes to the physical book. Yet, I cannot help but think that students are the poorer for not keeping the books that matter.