# Why did textbooks get so big?

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Something that doesn't make sense to me is the size of textbooks and technical books. If you look at technical books from the mid-1900s, they were human friendly sizes. For example, the 2nd edition of University Physics by Sears & Zemansky which was published in the 1950s is split into 2 volumes and it's lighter and smaller than the modern editions. (However, the content remains mostly the same.) Unlike it's modern version, it was clearly meant to be held by a human.

Any speculations on why this trend occurred?

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1 minute ago, FragmentedCurve said:

Any speculations on why this trend occurred?

To make them user-friendly, - and very expensive. If you look at most of those giant textbooks, you'll see wide right margins, as much as one third of the page, where they can put cartoons, fun facts, quotes, summaries or whatever. There are far more illustrations and diagrams than in the old books, lots of full-page, four-colour  pictures, large font size with extra-large headers and titles,on fat, glossy, acid-free paper. These monsters could last 500 years without half trying - and will, in the landfills - because they go out of print in about five years, when a new edition is released and all the professors require that one.

It was completely insane by about 2010. Fortunately (for students with early-onset spinal compression; unfortunately for booksellers) a lot of those college and highschool textbooks are now available in electronic editions, so they can carry the whole load in a pocket.

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10 hours ago, FragmentedCurve said:

Something that doesn't make sense to me is the size of textbooks and technical books. If you look at technical books from the mid-1900s, they were human friendly sizes. For example, the 2nd edition of University Physics by Sears & Zemansky which was published in the 1950s is split into 2 volumes and it's lighter and smaller than the modern editions. (However, the content remains mostly the same.) Unlike it's modern version, it was clearly meant to be held by a human.

Any speculations on why this trend occurred?

One data point does not make a trend.

Why might a particular publisher change a particular book from two volumes to one? Cost might be a factor. It’s possible that eliminating half of the book cover saves a few bucks.

But I can find this as a two-volume set. (13th edition, at least. Later editions include modern physics, so the content is not the same)

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10 hours ago, FragmentedCurve said:

Any speculations on why this trend occurred?

A feedback loop, my teacher said 'this' so 'this' must be true, no questions...

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6 hours ago, dimreepr said:

A feedback loop, my teacher said 'this' so 'this' must be true, no questions...

This doesn't make any sense.

17 hours ago, Peterkin said:

To make them user-friendly, - and very expensive. If you look at most of those giant textbooks, you'll see wide right margins, as much as one third of the page, where they can put cartoons, fun facts, quotes, summaries or whatever. There are far more illustrations and diagrams than in the old books, lots of full-page, four-colour  pictures, large font size with extra-large headers and titles,on fat, glossy, acid-free paper. These monsters could last 500 years without half trying - and will, in the landfills - because they go out of print in about five years, when a new edition is released and all the professors require that one.

Those "cartoons" and "fun facts" were such an annoyance. Color pictures don't lead to larger pages and I haven't actually measured it but the font size doesn't seem larger in newer books.

Plus, it's not just school textbooks, it's professional books in general such as UNIX programming books. I'm on vacation right now, when I return after the holidays, I'll measure some of the books I own. That'll give me something more concrete to talk about.

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1 hour ago, FragmentedCurve said:

the font size doesn't seem larger in newer books.

In 1920, you could put most college textbooks in a jacket pocket.

1 hour ago, FragmentedCurve said:

Color pictures don't lead to larger pages

No, but they need more pages. And they're big pictures, not little line diagrams.

1 hour ago, FragmentedCurve said:

I'm on vacation right now, when I return after the holidays, I'll measure some of the books I own.

You can measure the recent ones, but I doubt you have any from the 1920's through '50's. It's in the late 50's that they really started to grow glossy and flashy and pricey.  I can probably still find a few, though we've discarded most of them.

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I have enough from that time period to measure.

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5 minutes ago, FragmentedCurve said:

I have enough from that time period to measure.

Which time periods for comparison?

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My library consists of books ranging from around 1910 to today. Over the past 2 years I've slimmed down my library. I discarded many of my newer books (especially my computer books from around 2000 to 2010 and the 80s). However, I kept most of my older books because they're harder to replace. The older books I've discarded were ones I'll never reference again.

When I was a teenager, I couldn't afford new books so I would go to used book stores to find math books. For example, I wanted/needed a copy of William Fellers' probability book but couldn't buy it new, but eventually found it for a couple dollars at "The Bruised Apple". Back then I use to literally walk 5 miles to browse through "The Bruised Apple" bookstore. I loved that place.

Anyway, I ended up keeping the habit of studying subjects from old books in addition to using newer ones. So, I have a decent amount of old books, especially old math books.

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I will be interested to see your results!

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Not intending to be particularly contrary-- but in the past 15 years or so the math books and science books I used for teaching at the high school level have seen a huge increase in pretty color pictures and large diagrams, etc-- and that is a GOOD thing.  Older textbooks with printing only tended to overlook the variations in learning style of different individuals.  Not everyone learns well by reading only the printed word.  Textbook publishers have gotten very good at creating textbooks that are educational for a wider range of learning styles.

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One of the main reasons I use old books these days is because I'll get a different perspective. The presentation of and feeling for a subject changes over time. A student can learn whatever he needs to pass a test from a class textbook. But if a student wants to develop a deep intuition for a subject, it helps to see the difference in emphasis and techniques between then and now.

I have no complaints about better diagrams, I just don't think the size of a page has to increase much for printing a better diagram.

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1 hour ago, OldChemE said:

Not everyone learns well by reading only the printed word.  Textbook publishers have gotten very good at creating textbooks that are educational for a wider range of learning styles.

That's wonderful, as long as the styles that prefer lavish illustration and marginalia on fat glossy paper all have affluent parents who can fork out $50-100 per, and drive them to school. These books are lovely to look at, but they'd be difficult for a poor family to buy and the student to carry back and forth to school on foot and the bus. Once you get to college or university, the prices and heft become truly crippling. Edited by Peterkin ##### Link to comment ##### Share on other sites 35 minutes ago, Peterkin said: That's wonderful, as long as the styles that prefer lavish illustration and marginalia on fat glossy paper all have affluent parents who can fork out$50-100 per, and drive them to school. These books are lovely to look at, but they'd be difficult for a poor family to buy and the student to carry back and forth to school on foot and the bus. Once you get to college or university, the prices and heft become truly crippling.

Well there is a big push by many universities to adopt open source textbooks. Though it does seem that most do not even read those, so not sure whether it is a big issue unless you make them mandatory (but again, I think the trend goes away from that).

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14 hours ago, FragmentedCurve said:

This doesn't make any sense.

A book traps idea's, If there's only one copy... 😉

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On 12/23/2021 at 3:00 AM, FragmentedCurve said:

Something that doesn't make sense to me is the size of textbooks and technical books. If you look at technical books from the mid-1900s, they were human friendly sizes. For example, the 2nd edition of University Physics by Sears & Zemansky which was published in the 1950s is split into 2 volumes and it's lighter and smaller than the modern editions. (However, the content remains mostly the same.) Unlike it's modern version, it was clearly meant to be held by a human.

Any speculations on why this trend occurred?

Surely it's because the short leg on tables and chairs is getting shorter .

Merry Christmas everyone!

🙂

Edited by studiot
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"Why did textbooks get so big?"
We learned more stuff...?

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2 hours ago, John Cuthber said:

We learned more stuff...?

Edited by Peterkin
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52 minutes ago, Peterkin said:

That’s such a simple request to satisfy that I wonder if you’re serious.

Shall we perhaps first instead limit focus to global marketing in an age of rapidly evolving social media trends to make it at least moderately more challenging? Or maybe we narrow ourselves to dealing with international tax regulations in law versus in practice, or navigating sanctions when dealing with (or even just sailing cargo near) nations deemed to be enemies, or maybe we should stick to dealing with global data privacy regulations and laws?

Asking because your request is too easy, but TBH even limiting ourselves to books on these much narrower topics would lead to fat flowing page counts… or would be if they weren’t all shared mostly as soft copies via PDF.

Textbooks are bigger bc we keep learning more (yes, even in business) and students should be able to educate themselves just by reading it / without supplemental instruction.

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1 hour ago, iNow said:

Textbooks are bigger bc we keep learning more (yes, even in business) and students should be able to educate themselves just by reading it / without supplemental instruction.

AH! So then, they only need to spend the $1,000 or so per year for books, and can save the$75,000 or so for tuition! That makes sense.

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I offered no commentary on value or price. Are you asking me to offer some now? If so, please be more specific.

Edited by iNow
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8 hours ago, iNow said:

I offered no commentary on value or price.

11 hours ago, iNow said:

able to educate themselves just by reading it / without supplemental instruction.

That seemed to me at least an oblique comment on value: if they buy the expensive (which I had cited earlier) textbook, they should not need the even more expensive instruction. I do apologize, however, for quoting the Harvard tuition before; apparently far more affordable business programs are available:

Quote

The US Department of Education estimates that the average cost per year at a private four-year institution is $32,900 (or$131,600 over four years;

If it is indeed the case that an MBA degree can be had for the cost of the textbooks alone, the price - and immense size - of those books is fully justified. However, if the student is required to attend 4 years of classes so that all those intricate matters of global marketing and trade regulation can be explained to them by an instructor, all the textbooks really need to contain would be the shipping rates and conversion tables; the instructor could supply the margin notes and fun facts.

Just one more comment on the glossy paper. It isn't just vastly more pricey, it's also hard on the eyes and even harder on the landfills.

Go E-book, I say: cheaper, cleaner, safer, more convenient.

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Perhaps then you should open a new thread exploring business school tuition and the relative returns on those investments. At best here it’s off topic… oblique, direct, or otherwise.

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1 hour ago, iNow said:

At best here it’s off topic… oblique, direct, or otherwise.

I didn't realize that. I thought the size, weight, richness, etc. of the textbooks was part of an educational experience. I didn't mention instruction external to the  textbook until after you suggested that the comprehensive content of these new, giant textbooks renders live instruction superfluous. Only in that context would the cost ratio of book to instruction be relevant: i.e. If this is indeed the case, it justifies the large format, thick, lavishly illustrated, entertaining and very attractive textbooks. Otherwise, their extravagant production values seem to me quite wasteful.

Business college was just one example: it's the same in humanities and science courses. If I recall correctly, the most expensive of all were Physics books. The major difference, tmm, is that the science ones contain more factual, usable information.

None of my comments were intended as more than personal observations and opinion.

Edited by Peterkin
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I don't think that follows. Textbooks in many cases are supplemental tools, though sometimes publishers like to push overworked faculty members to use their teaching solutions to save time (but I do not know many who actually uses them). But a good textbook is best used as reference material. And obviously more info is generally a good thing. Of course one could slim them down to the essentials, but especially for beginners that tends to be too compact.

Some of the modern ones are geared to a different type of experience, specifically to make the information more relatable using some sort of narrative. While I dislike them personally, many younger students tend to prefer such styles. Also typically you have the option between ebook, hard and softcover (as well as loose leaflets). Personally I prefer hardcover, as if I decide to buy one, I use them for years. If seen only as a supplement to a single course, I think they  are not used optimally.

Also, often small, specialized textbooks can be quite a bit more expensive than big basic textbooks. Bacterial metabolism from Gottschalk is still my go-to, despite being quite old. However, it goes for the same price with around 300 pages as the more five-fold bigger Campbell Biology.

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