Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2007 Issue

What is More Expensive than a Collectible Book? -- The Outrageous Cost of College Textbooks

Textbooks

The price of textbooks is almost as outrageous as the cost of a college education.


By Michael Stillman

We received a press release from multi-site book searcher BookFinder.com that highlights one of the major cost issues with books these days. No, we are not talking about the high cost of antiquarian and other collectible books, luxuries rather than necessities for those who buy them. The issue is the outrageous cost of college textbooks students, often of limited means and already in hock up to their eyeballs, must pay for these course necessities. Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but the mother of price gouging. Price gouging is never pretty, be it at the gas pump or college bookstore, but is particularly ugly when targeted to items that are requirements for those who can ill afford them.

In the release, BookFinder's founder, Anirvan Chatterjee, is quoted as saying, "I can't believe how much students are having to pay this year." I can. I have two kids in college right now, and nothing surprises me. Textbooks typically cost a student in the area of $1,000 per year. And trust me, these will never be collectible works, appreciating in value. I still have some of my old expensive college textbooks, and though they, like I, have become antiquarian, you still can't give these things away.

Textbooks have been able to ride along on the coattails of the outrageous cost of a college education today. When colleges can charge upwards of $40,000 a year, and even state schools when all costs are factored in go well into five digits, textbooks can come across as an afterthought. It is like buying a refrigerator when you buy a new house. Having just spent a couple hundred grand for a home, the $1,000 for a new refrigerator seems almost irrelevant. Of course if you buy a refrigerator a few months later, you will pay close attention to the price, and carefully shop around for something less costly. However, if they can catch you at the moment you buy the house, the difference between the $300,000 house and the $301,000 house and refrigerator seems trivial. So it seems with the $40,000 education, or the $41,000 education with books. Who even notices the difference between being $100,000 or $104,000 in debt when you graduate? Either way it's hopeless.

However, just as something is going to have to give with college costs, so too will it have to give with textbooks. Education cannot be a privilege of the privileged, and we cannot go on saddling young people just starting their working lives with mountains of debt. We did not do this in the past; we certainly should not be doing it now when we have a wealthier nation. No animal in the animal kingdom expects its young to repay the previous generation for teaching it the skills it needs to survive, except for the human animal, American edition in particular. The young bird is not expected to return thousands of worms to the bird bank for being taught how to fly, yet humans persist in imposing this bird-brained idea on their young.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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