beowulf.jpgSo many articles on the potential for e-textbooks! Chris Meadows posted earlier about the shortcomings of the Kindle DX at Virginia University, for example. Not so great with the PDFs, and better suited for reading fiction. So…what if reading fiction is part of your degree? Can an ebook reader replace a bagful of textbooks then? I did some thinking about my own degree in English Language and Literature (1996-2000) and I think that if ebooks had been even half as big back then, I would have saved a fortune!

The first year course was your standard Norton Anthology-based type of thing, with one or two major novel studies, one of which was usually a Canadian novel. In my case, the novel was ‘Lives of Girls and Women’ by Alice Munro, and it must have been a huge hit among my professors because this would be the first of four times it would be a required reading in one of my classes (it would come up again in Post-Colonial Literature, Canadian Literature and Women in Literature). It is not available as an ebook at the three stores I checked, but other works by Munro are so an e-friendly professor could easily make a substitution. Nearly all of the Norton Anthology material would be extremely easy to find on-line for free.

Here were some courses I took in later years:


My degree was set up in an interesting way. The history of literature was divided into ten time periods grouped according to era, and you had to take certain numbers of courses from each of the different groupings. For example, one of the groupings was Old English/Beowulf/Shakespeare/The Restoration-18th Century and you had to take two of them. This was how I got stuck with the Restoration course, which at my school anyway, was a real dud of a course. Most people took the Shakespeare, and those who wanted to skip the foreign language aspects of old and middle English took the only other option and suffered through the dullest period of literary history with a professor who was banned from teaching first year students because he was so terrible. Anyway, the whole thing was set up to make sure that you had a reasonable grounding in most of the major eras.

VICTORIAN LITERATURE: Dead easy to find all of this on-line. We read Dombey and Son by Dickens, something by Austen, several plays and a boatload of Victorian poetry. One of the books we read cost $25 and was used for two classes. I did not write a paper on it. It was a complete waste of money.

SHAKESPEARE: The Norton Shakespeare, at $85, was the single most expensive book I bought for my degree. All of it available on-line for free, complete with line references, fully search-able on the Kindle…

POST-COLONIAL LITERATURE: None of this would have been available on-line. This was an upper-year seminar and the professor got to choose the focus. We had an amazing South African professor who chose to focus the entire course on literature from that country. I remember how expensive it was because all the books had to be special-ordered from the UK and whenever you cross the Europe/North America publishing lines, it costs you. I think you can find a little Coetzee on-line these days because he won the Nobel Prize, but that would be all, I would think.

WOMEN IN LITERATURE: Aside from the ever-present Lives of Girls and Women, I have no recollection of what we read in this class. It was second-year so they still were in the ‘overview’ form and we would have read novels from different eras. I am pretty sure Oroonoko by Aphra Behn was one of them, and you could certainly find that on-line.

CANADIAN LITERATURE: It was all novels. I don’t remember which ones, although I do recall this being my third encounter with a certain Alice Munro novel. That said, I could put together a great syllabus for a course like this made entirely of ebooks. project Gutenberg Canada could supply me with the more historical stuff (Susanna Moodie, the early poets Stepgen Leacock) and Kobo could outfit me with some modern novels. There is a bit of Coupland out there (sadly, not Microserfs, but I am prepared to compromise on this). Robert J. Sawyer, if one is willing to teach sci-fi. I can even get Rohinton Mistry as an ebook from the public library. Thank goodness the Canadian book chain Indigo has their own ebook store now (they are partners in Kobo). I have gotten many of my more recent Can-lit acquisitions there.

AMERICAN LITERATURE: I remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nathanael West and Poe, who are certainly available in ebook. We all hated the Faulkner and, come exam time, admitted to the professor that not a single one of us had gotten through it. Our big modern novel was Thomas Pynchon, who I could not find in ebook, but the professor had told us he considered deLillo instead, and he IS available.

LITERARY THEORY: The obligatory theory course. This would be so easy to do with ebooks. I remember a mid-term take-home exam that began with ‘summarize, in narrative form, the history of literary critcism from Plato to the Romantics.’ I remember frequent discussions about Aristotle, and recall using Star Trek examples in my take-home exam to illustrate the whole ‘probability/possibility’ argument. Public domain, all of these guys.

If I were a professor and I was serious about this, my first step would be to compile my own ‘Norton Anthology’ of public domain materials for the first year survey course. Then I would round out my historical stuff with some more appealing options that leverage the wealth of great public domain materials available now. How about an option to do ‘The History of the Detective Novel’ in lieu of the Austen/Dickens course? We could study Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Poe and their contemporaries. Or maybe an early sci-fi course with Verne, Wydham, Piper and others? And can we discuss the Creative Commons movement as part of Literary Theory and read some of the Doctorow and Stross essays?

So much out there, for those who read. And for those who read academically, a veritable treasure trove. Even back in 1996, where much less material was available, I could have made back three quarters of the cost of my Kindle just on the Shakespeare and Victorian stuff. And now? If professors are sensitive to ebook availability and willing to substitute one Munro for the other, as it were, I bet you could go all-E for the kind of program I took.


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