Textbook manifesto

Allen B. Downey
January 2010, updated February 2016

My textbook manifesto is so simple it sounds stupid. Here it is:

Students should read and understand textbooks.

That’s it.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone would disagree, but here’s the part I find infuriating: the vast majority of textbook authors, publishers, professors, and students behave as if they do not expect students to read or understand textbooks.

Here’s how it works. Most textbook authors sit down with the goal of writing the bible of their field. Since it is meant to be authoritative, they usually stick to well-established ideas and avoid opinion and controversy. The result is a book with no personality.

For publishers, the primary virtue is coverage. They want books that can be used for many classes, so they encourage authors to include all the material for all possible classes. The result is a 1000-page book with no personality.

For most professors, the cardinal virtue is course materials; they want a course-in-a-box. And judging by the email I get, what they really want is solutions to the exercises. Unfortunately, price is usually not an issue. The result is an expensive 1000-page book with no personality.

For students, these virtues are irrelevant because textbooks are unreadable and, usually, unread.

Here’s what happens. The professor chooses a 1000-page book and assigns students to read 50 pages a week. They can’t and they don’t, so the professor spends class time explaining what the students couldn’t read. Before long, the students learn that they shouldn’t even try. The result is a 1000-page doorstop.

What’s the solution?

Easy, it’s the opposite of everything I just said. Authors need to write books students can read and understand. That means 10 pages a week, or 140 pages for a semester long class. And it means writing for actual students, not the imaginary ones from 50 years ago who were “well prepared.” Actual students.

Publishers: I don’t know what to tell you. Your role in developing and distributing textbooks is no longer required. You are now in the publicity business.

Professors: Choose books your students can read and understand. If you can’t find one, write one. It’s not that hard. Then require students to read, and check whether they understand.

How? Among other things, reading quizzes. Ask your students to read a chapter and then ask them questions about it. If a few students don’t understand, blame the students. If more than a few don’t understand, fix the book.

Students: You should go on strike. If your textbook costs more than $50, don’t buy it. If it has more than 500 pages, don’t read it. There’s just no excuse for bad books.


Thanks to Joshua Haase, who translated this manifesto into Spanish.  And to Angelo Basile, who translated it into Italian.

About free books

If you are thinking about writing a free book, here are reasons you should and suggestions about how: Free Books: Why Not?.