Textbooks are okay, PDFs are not

Image by Olivia Tsai

Since the beginning of my university career, the most exciting part of a new semester has been buying new books at the bookstore. I know that this isn’t the most affordable or efficient way to get my course material, but I do enjoy new books; the ability to crack the spine and inhale that new book scent. I’m even okay with having to purchase custom-bound course packs. And while I may sound as if I’m advertising for the SFU Bookstore, I actually defend all print books for class in general.

Sadly, the PDF has become the bane of my university experience; I haven’t had a class in recent memory that hasn’t included multiple PDF readings, if not entirely comprising the course reading list. While this may seem like an excellent idea to save money, for me it simply isn’t worth it. One reason being that I don’t appreciate having to fight with Canvas to download my readings. While it’s nice to have access to an online learning hub, Canvas doesn’t constitute the most user-friendly experience, and depending on how well my professor understands the system, I may spend an excess 30 minutes trying to find one reading.

Also, what platform should I read it on? My highly distracting electronic device that’s one quick swipe away from a black hole of procrastination? Do I buy a printer, ink, paper, and an industrial stapler to print my own copy? Or do I waste time buying a printing card and having to return to library to keep printing unbound pages? None of these options seem like a great idea, yet this is the predicament I face. We have to be prepared to waste our valuable time and money to print off reams of paper that we will probably never give a second glance to, and that we can’t even sell to the next wave of students taking that particular class.

Professors often justify this PDF conundrum as being more cost-effective for students, or because they don’t like the way that that the supplementary readings are printed by document services. My time is money and I would rather have a neatly organized, pre-printed and bound set of readings than have to print, organize, and try to not lose what is sometimes 40-plus loose-leaf pages of readings per week.

Finally, PDFs allow professors to sneak extra readings into the course curriculum. When registering for class, I always look at the course outline so I can prepare myself for what I will have to read, and so I can roughly estimate how much time the class will take.

The books listed seem manageable for my selected course load; inevitably, though, when the syllabus arrives, there are three to five supplementary PDF-based readings every week to accompany the books that are also assigned. While it is my own fault for forgetting that there are always PDF-based readings, I naively hope that what the outline lists as assigned books are truly the only readings for the class.

I know that the PDF isn’t going anywhere because of the importance placed on technology in academia, but I really do miss the printed book, the fact that it is nicely bound, and unplugged. And when all else fails, it decorates your shelf to make you look more educated than you feel.