Reading Textbooks for Pleasure

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research.

(Image credit: Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski)

by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, AIR staff

There are many dying arts. Reading in general may be one of them, but I don’t know how you’d go about truly assessing that. I do know about reading textbooks for leisure. No one would call it a dying art. The practice of reading textbooks for leisure is just as lively now as it has ever been.

More people buy textbooks -- actually spend their own money to do it -- now than ever before. And in deciding what to buy, they -- we -- are kids in a candy store. There’s an ever-growing number of specialized subjects for which textbooks exist, and so the variety of textbooks on offer is always increasing. Even if you somehow manage to exhaust the cream of one genre, you can easily find another genre to sample.

There is much to be gained, potentially, from trying a textbook from a world that’s new to you, especially one that hasn’t yet been hyped by the critics and lit-blogs and talk shows. It’s fun to get in on something while it still has cult status.

Let me make three suggestions off the top of my head. Ferziger and Peric’s Computational Methods for Fluid Dynamics is packed with ideas and language you’ll seldom find in anything by Charles Dickens or Virginia Woolf or in most of the Harlequin romances. Correctional Administration: Integrating Theory and Practice, by Richard P. Seiter, is bursting with plangent metaphors. And cozying up with a hematology textbook, if you’re not a hematologist, is more of an adventure than many people realize.

An un-timid reader can find lots of other good, meaty reads packed with traditional literary merit. Like the best novels, many of the textbooks in forestry management and ergodic theory and multinational auditing and thousands of other genres try to fill a reader’s mind with ideas and words that, at first read, really do feel completely novel.

But that’s not the best part. Used textbooks offer one thing more to beguile the leisure-time reader.

For many of us, the highlight of reading used textbooks is the highlighting, the lines previous readers have drawn under or around or through particular words or passages. Good highlighting makes any used textbook worth the purchase. Bad highlighting makes it even better. And in buying highlighted textbooks, you sometimes get a double bonus. Despite the carefully added interest, they often have drastically reduced price tags.

The subject of pre-highlighted books is not just of non-academic interest. Vicki Silvers and David Kreiner, of Central Missouri State University, were awarded an Ig Nobel Literature Prize for a study they published in 1997. Titled "The Effects of Pre-Existing Inappropriate Highlighting on Reading Comprehension," their report describes a series of clever experiments.1 In their acceptance speech, delivered at the ceremony at Harvard, Silvers and Kreiner offered one piece of advice: “Don’t buy a textbook that was highlighted by an idiot.”

I’m not sure I’d agree.

1. “The Effects of Pre-Existing Inappropriate Highlighting on Reading Comprehension,” Vicki Silvers and David Kreiner, Reading Research and Instruction, vol. 36,
1997, pp. 217-23.


This article is republished with permission from the May-June 2005 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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