I guess some might consider Bible Study to be an odd hobby for an Atheist, but I believe that it is necessary to read the bible, and the Quran, in order to understand the mindset of fundamentalists in the world. This is extremely important, in my opinion, because the fundamentalists have access to some pretty terrible weapons of war.
I've been collecting different translations of the bible and Quran - currently my favorite bible translation is the New English Translation. My current favorite Quran translation is the one by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. (I got it free!) It's fun to match translations with each other to see where they were influenced by previous translations. It's fun to see how the "word of God" alters from translation to translation.
So I was attracted to the display of bibles in the checkout line at Wal-Mart the other day. I looked them over to see if there was a translation that I wanted - and I found this copy of the New King James Version of the bible. (Amazon) I didn't have the NKJ version, and wanted it, but I hadn't budgeted any money for bibles this pay cycle, so I was unsure if I could afford it.
I picked up the bible, and found it was priced at $1.50. That's right, a buck-fifty! Shoot, that was less than the cat food I was buying! So of course I tossed it into my cart. And I started thinking of how amazing it was that I could get a bible so cheaply.
The quality of this dollar-fifty bible isn't very high. It's paperback, and the pages seem to be somewhat like newsprint; but of better quality than a standard paperback novel. The text was very small to cut down on the number of pages to about 500. Still, the printing is clear, important areas like the Ten Commandments have special indentation. All in all it seems worth a lot more than a buck fifty.
I started looking over the rest of the bibles in the display. I found a 'gift' bible wrapped in pseudo-leather with true bible onionskin pages and color illustrations for under $5.00. I found hard-core 'study' bibles with wide margins and hardback binding for under $20.
As I finished checking out, I could only shake my head at the prices. The bibles on onionskin with super small writing have about a thousand pages in them. The ones with standard fonts (i.e. readable by normal humans) have more than that, and still cost under $30 - easily under $30.
This is one of the areas where religion wins over science.
My calculus book cost me $175, new. (About $80 used at the time I was taking Calculus.) It has about a thousand pages in it. James Stewart wrote it, and I have the 4th edition. (Amazon) James Stewart seems to put out a new edition about once every 3 years or so, and it is currently in it's 5th edition.
My physics books are in their seventh edition, two to the set and about $130 each when I purchased them. Even my college level Algebra & Trigonometry book was in its 5th edition, and it cost me about $70 dollars over a decade ago.
What's going on here? I can understand why my Digital Electronics book was in its ninth edition - electronics is a fast changing subject. I can sort of understand why my physics books had so many editions because new discoveries have been made in physics every year.
But what new discoveries have been made in calculus? In algebra?
There are a lot of reasons why textbooks are revised. Legitimate revisions correct errors and include new teaching methods. Other reasons are more corrupt. As Richard Feynman pointed out in his book, "Surly You're Joking, Mr. Feynman", (link to text online / Amazon) there is big money in textbook publishing, and the publishers will use dishonest methods to get their books into print, including printing poorly designed textbooks in need of substantial corrections.
When I first took algebra in High School, the first day my teacher, Mr. Richardson, showed his distain for the textbook when handing them out. "I'm required by Texas State law to hand these text books out," he said. "Take them home, protect them. Use them as a doorstop for all I care. Just bring them back undamaged at the end of the year." I have no memory of what my high school algebra book looked like - we used handouts all year. I learned a lot from him.
College students soon learn that it is not only cheaper, but also sometimes actually more instructive to purchase a used textbook. You'll see college students sorting through a stack of used textbooks to find one that has good notes in the margins, or has had key points highlighted by a former student. These things can cut down your study time. Used textbooks often sell for half, or a third of what a new textbook costs.
Why does James Stewart re-issue a Calculus book every 3 years? Is it to correct errors or to force students to purchase new books in a market that has become saturated with used textbooks?
Why is a textbook printed on heavy, glossy paper? My calculus book weights 5 1/2 pounds! My 1,700 page Amplified Bible, physically the largest bible that I own, weighs about a pound. High school and college kids struggle under backpacks of heavy textbooks. In college, my backpacks frequently weighed 40 pounds or more. That's more than what a professional hiker would carry.
It wasn't always this way.
I have a Trigonometry textbook that was published in the 1940's. It is a college level textbook, and it has about 60 pages in it. It was printed on lightweight paper, almost like newsprint - and very much like my new dollar-fifty bible. My father got it used from a bookstore in the '80s, and for a 60-year-old book it has held up remarkably well. It gives all the trigonometry fundamentals, and is filled with problems to work out.
It was more useful to me than the section on trigonometry in my Keedy/Bittinger 4th edition of Algebra & Trigonometry. The explanation of Sine in the Keedy/Bittinger book was not nearly as clear as the explanation from 60 years ago. Unfortunately, I've misplaced my older trig book - probably in one of the many boxes that I have in storage.
Here's an idea - why can't textbook publishers make books that can compete?
I realize that some aspects of learning change quickly. New physics are discovered and new inventions must be covered. Even history books must be updated to include new archeological finds, or to include the new history that is being made year-by-year.
There is something to the argument that bibles are static, and textbooks are fluid and so must be updated much more often. But bibles are also updated fairly often - as is evidenced by all the different bible translations that I own. Still, I'll easily admit that bibles are not nearly as fluid as textbooks.
But in today's mass-produced market, I still don't understand why a publisher can't make textbooks lightweight and inexpensive. I've heard an argument that a publisher wants to make durable textbooks - but that argument fails as soon as you consider that a textbook is only as 'durable' as its next edition.
Are publishers worried that an onionskin textbook with color illustrations won't stand up to a student's abuse? Bible publishers are clearly not worried. An abused bible is soon replaced. Street preachers are proud of their 'abused' bibles - worn, highlighted, with notes in the margins. They consider such abuse to be honorable 'battle' scars. College students will often protect their textbooks carefully in order to earn as much as possible when selling them back to the bookstore.
If the textbook were only twenty dollars, instead of a hundred twenty, would the student be more inclined to keep the textbook for further reference? Would the publisher be able to continue selling textbooks without worrying about competing with the used textbook market?
One of the reasons why conservatives point out the so-called 'ivory tower' of college education is because such education is inaccessible or difficult financially for a large population in America. Some of this stigma could be eased if textbook information was made easily accessible to those of lesser means.
I believe that America would benefit from well-made, twenty-dollar 'Wal-Mart' textbooks. I know the market isn't as great as it is for bibles. I realize I'll never see a good, dollar-fifty Algebra textbook. But fifty dollars is too much, and seventy or more is just ridiculous.
How can we encourage anyone to study science when it is not packaged as attractively or as inexpensively as Religion?