Even with all our wars and bickering, I like to think there are certain commonalities with all of us that link us to the rest of mankind on a very fundamental level. I like to think that any two people – no matter their religion, creed, race or class – share something that makes us all innately and inescapably human.
Though, before this starts sounding too flowery and poetic, I should clarify that I’m talking about our shared dislike of how much college textbooks cost.
No two students are exactly the same, meaning that everyone is bound to have their own unique journey through their college years. Some join clubs. Some prefer the solitude. Some like early classes. Some like late ones. And some prefer not to attend at all, because it’s not their money. But one of the first experiences all students will universally hate is buying books.
For those who’ve never been to college, I’ll try my best to explain. First, imagine you’re going through a TSA screening at the airport. Then imagine you’re randomly selected for a cavity search. And lastly, imagine that before you can waddle off to find a bag of ice, the TSA agent holds out a hand that was very recently inside you, clears their throat and nods to a large sign that reads, “Tipping is mandatory.”
It’s pretty much like that, except without the fun trip afterward.
Because that’s the thing people always need to understand about buying books for classes. It’s not as bad as you think. It’s generally much, much worse.
I still remember my first experience at the student bookstore. I’d been reaching for a copy of my astronomy book when I spotted the $110 price tag and cringed. With money a bit tight, I opted for one of the used copies lower on the shelf. That’s when, still not finished with my first cringe, I cringed again at the $99 used price tag.
I made several decisions at once then. For one, I made a mental note to copyright a movie where people do things inside other things and have whoever directed the next Batman movie do it. For another, I decided to find a more used copy at a lower price. I moved lower. And lower. And before long I’d reached the floor. Despite several of the used copies looking like they’d recently been used as second-rate attic insulation, none were more than 10% discounted from the shiny new ones that prompted my first cringe.
Seeing no other option, I chose the least-destroyed used copy I could find and trudged up to the counter. There, I mentally calculated how many meals I’d need to skip to keep a positive checking account balance while I waited for a line of similarly broken students to finish their own purchases. Within about thirty seconds, we were even sighing in unison.
“Well,” you say, butting in, “at least that’s the last of it.” You then brush your hands together to emphasize your point.
Except, no. Because like some horrible, horrible onion, there are many distinct layers of awful to the experience.
Not long after, I noticed an “error” on my syllabus. “Are these pages for the assigned reading right?” I asked the professor after class. “It just sort of starts midway through a random chapter and ends on the first page of another. It doesn’t cover any of the topics you mentioned in class today.”
“What edition of the book do you have?” the professor asked with a sigh, sounding distinctly like it was a conversation he had at least hourly.
I looked at my copy. “Seventh?”
“Right. We’re using a new edition,” he explained, before adding, “There’s actually a newer one coming out in the Fall, now that I think of it.”
I blinked at the useless collection of pages and failure I’d mistakenly purchased in place of the book I’d actually needed. “So…I can’t use it, then?”
“Not necessarily. I mean, it’s still pretty much the same book as it was in the third edition. You’ll just have to search around a bit to match up your pages to the ones I assign.” He shrugged. “The chapter titles are even the same so it shouldn’t be a big deal, except…”
“I take it you’re about to tell me some really good news.”
Swing and a miss. “I mean, the good news is, finding the pages isn’t a huge deal. There are only three reading assignments from the book anyway, and I mostly cover it in class anyway.”
“I’m highly concerned that you consider that part the good news,” I said grimly. He’d effectively just revealed that I’d spent a hundred dollars on a book he’d only expected me to open three times in the course of his class. It made me more than a little worried at what he considered bad news.
“Well, the trouble is, you’ll need a new copy to connect to the online coursework. It has a CD and password that can only be used once.” Having apparently brushed against some memory of what it had been like to be a decent human, he muttered, “Sorry.”
“The online coursework is 15% of the grade…so…” I trailed off into my own misery. “Is there any way I could get a CD and password?” Seeing his lips begin to move, I clarified, “Without buying a new book and wasting a second $100.”
“$100? I thought it was $110.”
My eye twitched.
He hesitated before finally answering, “There is one thing.”
“Tell me the thing.”
“I’ve heard you can purchase it direct from the publisher and cut out the school as the middle man,” he answered. “The good news is that one of my students last year said it was only $60. And I think it only went up $5 in the new edition.”
“You have an interesting view of what constitutes good news.”
This, naturally, led to a lecture on how he wasn’t setting the prices. He was, in fact, on my side. The best I could do, he reasoned, was to make the best of a bad situation by succeeding despite the difficulty. Then again, it was hard to see him as any sort of fellow victim when he’d been the one to make the questionable reading list in the first place. And I’ll admit that his position was more than a little undercut by the fact that he’d actually written the book and was collecting royalties from my purchase.
Now, as luck would have it – and trust me, miraculously so – the CD and password in my used copy hadn’t been used before the book was sold back. Since books are totally non-refundable or exchangeable (until buyback, which I’ll get to), it literally meant that if I’d picked any of the other used copies at random, I’d have been buying a $100 paperweight.
And one that required (at least) a $65 replacement, no less.
Was that a bad experience? Absolutely. But not nearly as bad as the time I bought the most recent edition and couldn’t use it because the professor was still using the third edition workbook CD. I had, in fact, bought a too-new edition to use in his class.
Or the time a professor said they requested the library remove all copies of a book. In his words, “If there were copies at the library, people would just check them out for the reading assignments instead of buying them, to save money.”
“I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said. “That was pretty much my argument for why a copy should be in the library.” I then let him get back to baking children into pies in his house made of candy.
But that, much like the used book I once found missing every page from Chapter 14 to the back cover, is only half the story.