I grew up thinking books are sacred.  That's because I didn't own them.  Rather, I checked them out of the library or borrowed them, or in the case of school books, checked them out.  And being from a pretty poor family, I certainly didn't want to pay for "damaged" books.

When I went to college in the early 70's, I, too, went through the shock of having to buy my books.  Believe me, the cost then for college textbooks was just as horrendous as it is now.  I always tried to save a little money by buying the used books and then selling them back at the end of the term.  But sometimes there weren't any used textbooks.  If a course was beginning to use a newly published textbook, no copies would have been used.  I remember having to spend $90 for one psychology textbook -- huge, heavy, and hardback.  Unfortunately, we hardly used that text in class.  Oh well, I told myself.  I'll be able to turn it in at the end of the term and get some money back.  In fact, that was the money I was going to use to get home (helping pay whoever gave me a ride for the gas.)  When I went to sell the book back, however, the clerk told me they weren't buying this book back because it wasn't going to be used the next term.  I was so angry that I lobbed the book at the guy and took off crying.  (He dodged.)

That was one of my big lessons about bookstore economics.  That the buyback depends on future need or use.

Do you plan to sell your textbooks back to the bookstore?  If so, you may be planning to not put a mark in any of your texts.  You might be thinking if I write in it, the bookstore won't take it back.  Keep it nice and clean and then the bookstore will give you more for it.  Guess what?  The powers-that-be at the bookstore want you to think that.  They want nice, clean, unmarked books to sell as used to future students.  But the truth is, they have to take the book if it's written in and highlighted but undamaged in any other way.  An annotated textbook is NOT damaged.

If the book is damaged, they can't take it at all.  So what's "damaged"?  If any pages are missing.  (Caution:  technically, the bookstore shouldn't take back workbook style texts.  But if you buy texts online, those companies may not follow the same guidelines.  These are the books that have perforations near the binding, so that the pages are easy to tear out, and lots of blanks to be filled in by the student -- the purpose being to turn the page in to the teacher.  If you are tempted to buy such a book used, be very sure ALL the pages are there and the blanks are not filled in.  I've had students in my college success classes with textbooks missing whole sections.)

I've also heard the bookstore employees can get picky about a creased cover (in the case of paperbacks.)  I'm not sure why that's true unless it's just an indication of the overall abuse that this book has suffered. 

How much money you get back for your books seems to vary quite a bit.  This might lead you to think the cleaner the book or the better shape it's in, the more money you get back.  However, there are actually set prices for all textbook buybacks.  The amount does vary, but according to how easy this textbook is to attain for the next term, which has to do with the bookstore company's connections to other college and university bookstores and whether this text is customized for this college or not.  It has nothing to do with how marked up the book is.  In general, the amount you get back is about 1/4th the cost that you paid for it when you bought it.  If you bought it used, you probably paid a little more than half the price of a brand new book. 

To sum up -- writing in your textbook doesn't damage it; you get the same amount of money back whether you write in it or not.  Don't believe me?

Let's look at the used books the bookstore is selling.  After years of buying used books and selling them back, you will figure this out yourself, but for now just take a look at the books in the higher levels of classes.  (In the lower levels, students are still deluding themselves that they should not write in their books.  In the higher levels, students have figured out what works for their own learning.) 

In the higher-level used books, you should see lots of annotating -- highlighting and comments in the margins.  I have bought books that have been recycled multiple times (they look like the book on the top of the pile in the picture above, with lots of "used" stickers).  You can tell when different people made different notes.  Handwriting's different, color of ink, etc.  Sometimes, I would read the notes and either agree or disagree with them, writing my comments to their comments!  This method is still quite effective for learning, much more effective than not writing notes at all.  (The only time it might not be more effective is for those notebook-style texts, with blanks to be filled in with the "answers."  That seems to be a different situation.  But I can't say from my own experience, since in my day, we didn't have that kind of textbook.)

Of course, you are more likely to choose the cleaner used books so you can make your own annotations, which is probably why the bookstore managers don't want you to mark in books you're returning.  The cleaner ones are the books that sell first.     

Get used to the idea of marking up your textbooks.  It's one of the methods of successful readers.  If you don't read with pencil or pen in hand, you handicap your learning.  Mortimer J. Adler makes a good argument for the benefits of marking up your books in his essay, "How to Mark a Book."  He writes, "Full ownership comes only when you have made [the book] a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it is by writing in it."  It's like "having your cake and eating it too."  In reality, how can you truly "have" your cake until you eat it?  Marking in your book is like eating it, like digesting the information and actually becoming a different (more knowledgeable) person as a result.  And yes, after it's been digested, that book should look different, too!

Now I'm not sure how to learn from a rented book.  Perhaps you can help me with that.  How can you get the same advantage in a rented book that you would get from writing in a hard copy?  Let me know so I can add it here.

The bookstore's policy of encouraging you to not mark in your book may be good for its business, but it's not good for your learning as a student.  And what are you here for?  To keep the bookstore in business or to learn?

  This page was last updated Thursday, August 14, 2014, by Connie Gulick.