Barnes and Noble and their Nook Study: evil, incompetent, or both?

OK, so do you all remember the Saga of the E-Text Saga last year? Well, it’s grown epic this year. (There’s a dorky joke in there. Last year’s saga involved an actual Norse saga. This year’s version involves classical and medieval epics, among other genres.)

Here’s what’s going on. The ‘bots at the Barnes and Noble money-making factory have foisted 6 different e-texts on my students, only three (or three and a half — more, below) of which are actually the same edition and translation as the texts I actually ordered. For the moment, let’s leave aside the issue of whether or not I want e-texts at all, and whether or not an e-text is conducive to the kind of close study of texts we do in English. Of those three correct matches, two of them have hideous formatting issues — clearly no human editor was involved in putting together these electronic editions. One of them is a facing-page translation of Dante’s Inferno, which means that in the electronic version, the Italian and English is all mixed up. The other is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the long verse lines get all broken up in random ways, and the table of contents is not navigable enough for someone who wants to assign selected parts, rather than read from beginning to end. (I think maybe the novel — and the way that “book” and “novel” are synonymous for so many people — is to blame for the assumption that one would read every book that way.)

Meanwhile, they associated two *different* translations of the Metamorphoses with the book I actually ordered, and, of course the cheaper one is the wrong translation. What the hell?! Of course any student who decides they’re going to get the e-text is going to go for the cheaper one! But it’s the wrong text, so then they’re going to have to buy the slightly more expensive one after all, and they’re out the original expense entirely, because e-texts are non-refundable. Argh.

And then there’s the random piece of crap edition of Twelfth Night that the ‘bots picked out for one of my other classes. It’s from a freely-available public domain edition, which means it’s some poorly edited 19th century edition, and it is, of course, utterly free of the apparatus that most students need for Shakespeare: glosses, notes, and introduction. And what really chaps my hide is that B&N is still charging $0.95 for it, despite having added no value to the text that a student could find for free on the web. (At least it’s not $6.00, like last year’s public-domain Saga of the Volsungs was.)

Listen up, Barnes and Noble! Different translations and different editions are DIFFERENT (disappointed professor is disappointed!), and those differences matter! Would you give a science student a 19th century book called Biology for their biology class? (Well, maybe you would.) Get someone to program your book-seeking ‘bots better or — and here’s a radical notion — hire real live people to review things!

Had I not just talked to a friendly and helpful staff person in the bookstore, who was able to remove the offending title from the web site, I’d be angrier about this. (Last year it took a call to corporate to get rid of the texts. This year, they’ve got things set up to give the local bookstore more control. Now if only the professor could have that control, please and thank you.) And I was even angrier earlier this summer when the ‘bots had assigned recommended reading to go with my books, which turned out to be yet more translations of the texts I’d assigned. Because yeah, apparently a Barnes and Noble ‘bot knows more about the best translations of Virgil than I do.  Grrrrrrrr.  But those recommended texts soon disappeared, and I’d like to think it’s because our awesome bookstore staff said, “Hey now, I don’t think corporate gets to recommend books for our professors’ classes.”  Maybe. Who knows what happened. Maybe it was just a glitch to begin with.

I could have just had all the e-texts removed from my courses — the bookstore staff person was willing to do that — but I decided I might try an experiment and let students order e-texts of one book in each of the courses with available ones — where it’s the correct translation/edition, of course. In the classical and medieval European lit class, I’m leaving the Nook edition of Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of The Aeneid, and in my introduction to literary study class, I’ll let them buy the electronic version of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, if they so choose (no edition/translation problems with that text, of course!).  But, I’m going to tell students that if they use electronic editions, they must have a portable reader they can bring to class and must be responsible for knowing how to get to whatever part of the text I ask them to turn to.  I figure it would be good for me to have some concrete experience, good or ill, with students using electronic texts in class, especially if I’m going to make arguments about why they don’t work in a literature class. So this year will be a bit of a pedagogical experiment.

But I have a feeling most of our students, especially in these two classes, won’t get them, even though they’ll save a few bucks. First, most of my students are English majors, and they seriously fetishize printed books. Second, they know it’s hard to follow or take notes if you’ve got a different book than everyone else. And third, most of them *don’t* have tablets and smart phones and the like — our students are broke-ass people — and some of them don’t even have their own computers, so it would be all that much harder for them to get access to these e-texts.  That last point is one I really want to beat into the heads of all those futurists out there who keep claiming that e-texts are the salvation for the debt-riddled student. Yeah, well, the Mandelbaum Aeneid might be $4 cheaper in e-text than in new paperback, but not if you don’t have your own equipment on which to read it! Duh!

And finally, given that we’re in the incunabula stage of e-texts, I really shouldn’t have to take the time and money to vet all the e-texts the Barnes and Noble ‘bots pick out for me. Instead, if *I* want to assign an e-text, I should have to order it just like I would a print book. It’s my damn class, after all.


A saga of e-texts

I’m not a luddite. You’re reading this on my blog, for pete’s sake, and I’m already on Google+ (lest you think, “OMG, blogs are sooooo last decade” or something).  And I’m not snobby about electronic books or sentimental about physical books, either, despite being a medievalist who sometimes works with manuscripts. (Perhaps it’s because I have a long view of the history of the book that I’m open to new forms of it. And it’s also because of that knowledge that I know new forms and old can overlap for centuries and have different but parallel functions.) I have a Kindle and love it to pieces for many kinds of reading, both personal and professional. And if all of my students had portable e-readers on which they could easily read the texts I’d assigned in the precise editions and/or translations I’d assigned; and if they could easily annotate said texts and see those annotations and the text at the same time; and if we could all quickly get to the same place in the text together in the classroom, I’d have no problem with a classroom full of e-texts. I need you to know that before I tell you my little saga.

Unfortunately we’re not at that ideal place yet, that happy picture of the future with students all reading and writing along in their sleek tablet computers, and we may not be there for a long time, at least not for those of us who work with primary texts. The reasons why have less to do with the technology than with the humans and corporations involved and their very different motivations for doing what they do. But this is all very vague, so let’s skip to the infuriating experience I recently had with the Rust Belt University bookstore (or, more precisely, with the corporate entity that owns it).  It has a happy ending, at least, but the infuriating part exemplifies better what the problem is.

So. Flashback to last spring, when one of the managers of our campus bookstore — run, like many of them, by Barnes and Noble — came to our last faculty meeting of the year to introduce us to two new options for textbooks that the store was offering to students, where available: book rental (yay! I said in my head) and e-texts (uh-oh, hmmmmm, I thought as the alarm bells went off). Now see, as I am on sabbatical and I have a tendency to procrastinate from my research work with other forms of productivity (as you’ve seen), I had already a) done my books orders, b) planned my syllabuses (because I had to do that to do the books orders), and c) vetted the Kindle versions (if any) of the texts I ordered, because that’s the e-reader I have. I know what the potential problems are with e-texts, especially ones hastily converted from an in-print traditional book, and I wanted to be armed if a students spontaneously downloaded an e-text version of one of my class’s books and asked if s/he could use that.

A carefully done e-text is an awesome thing, but right now publishers and book sellers are so eager to jump into this growing market that they’re pushing all sorts of crap out there, with a lot of problems from the mildly annoying to the infuriating. So, for instance, any book that relies on static pages and page layout to make sense — say, for example, anything with marginal glosses or footnotes or sidebar text-boxes — is going to be unreadable, to some degree or another, in a scalable font e-text if it’s been hastily scanned for the Kindle/Nook market without careful re-editing and re-designing to include hyperlinks instead of the static layout. And even with continuous prose with fewer layout issues, there are OCR (optical character recognition) problems. Although I’ve seen many that are easy enough to mentally correct, a really poorly done book can be distractingly full of them.  And there are a *lot* of books out there that have been scanned quickly and cheaply from public domain books and from publishers’ back catalogs that have these problems.

But the problem that worries me the most is the mismatch of editions and translations from print version to e-text that I’ve seen all over Amazon.  Again and again, an Amazon page for X title edited and/or translated by Y person in the print version is linked to a Kindle edition that’s still X title, but Z translator or editor. (To be fair, Amazon does this with print and audio editions, too.  And they do this with the reviews, matching them up by title instead of edition or format, even though some of the reviewers might be talking mostly about the pros and cons about a specific edition, translation, or media. Drives me batty.) For example, if you go to the Amazon page for the Penguin Classics edition of Jesse Byock’s 1990 translation of The Saga of the Volsungs, you’ll find a Kindle Edition listed for a mere $0.95. Wow, you think, that’s a lot cheaper than the $11.20 Amazon wants for the print edition! Excellent. And so you click on the link and go to the page for the Kindle edition.  Hm, the first warning sign is that the cover is entirely different — that’s weird. But the editorial review listed mentions Byock and all the user reviews are about Byock’s translation, so it must be the same text, right? Wrong. As a close examination of the product description shows, it’s actually the 1870 translation by Eirikr Magnusson and William Morris (which I verified by downloading a sample text), which, btw, is in the public domain and available for free on many sites on the internet (including in PDF form, which you can send to your Kindle if you like). So even if you want that version, you can save your 95 cents.

So far, all this means is that if you’re going to use or allow e-texts in the classroom, you have to carefully vet them, and if you don’t want students to get the wrong editions when they order things themselves (as they sometimes do to save a few bucks), you should warn them about using ISBN numbers and paying attention to editors and/or translators — all true for print editions as well as e-texts.  And that’s what I did on my syllabus — I even included a paragraph about why the Kindle editions of Saga of the Volsungs  and other texts in our class weren’t acceptable.  But when the bookstore on your campus comes in and says they’re offering the students the electronic versions of the texts you’ve carefully handpicked and vetted using your professional expertise, that has the potential to completely undermine all the work you’ve done for all of the reasons discussed above. And so when our Barnes and Noble bookstore representative told us about this great new option — which would save students money! she cheerfully exclaimed — my alarm bells went off and my hand shot up.  I asked if faculty were able to vet the e-texts first and I raised all of the issues above. I even used Saga of the Volsungs as an example.  She told us, no, it was something automatically done through Barnes and Noble and their Nook Study program — when an e-text was available, that is.  I told her I had very good reason for not wanting e-texts at this time, especially if I couldn’t vet them, and summarized the issues, and asked if I could just have any and all e-texts blocked from my book orders.  She said no, that we’d have to talk to her and she’d deal with any problems on a case by case basis, and, if necessary, remove any options for e-texts upon request.  Through all of this, she was a little confused. She didn’t know what OCR errors were, for example, and when I used the “Kindle edition” as an example, she hastily brushed that aside and said these aren’t Kindle books, they’re Nook Study editions, and students won’t need a special e-reader to read them, seemingly missing all of my points. So I said, yes, I realize that, but can you guarantee me that the Nook version of the book I ordered will be the *exact* *same* book? In other words, if I order the Jesse Byock translation of the Saga of the Volsungs, I’ll get that version and not some other?  Oh yes, she said, we’ll only offer the exact book you ordered.

Other questions we had included whether students could print texts and bring them to class — something very important for the study of literature, as our “textbooks” are the primary material of class.  She said that it depended on the book and that some books would let you print only 10 pages at a time. This was a problem for all of us — even those of us who aren’t likely to have issues with translations or editions — and she seemed unsympathetic to that, or at least confused by why we were opposed to something that would save students money. (I’m going to come back to that, so keep it in mind.) This reminded me of all the times I’ve railed about bookstores that don’t order enough books for my classes, whether at RBU or elsewhere.  Every time they tell me that “some students don’t buy the books” and every time I tell them that in my classes the books *are* the class, and if my students are telling me they don’t have the books, and need the books, and want to buy the books, then clearly they are *not* skipping out on buying the books.  Why is it that our bookstore people can’t understand that not every discipline works the same way? How hard is it for a business to have flexible policies? (Yeah, yeah, I know — e-texts would solve this particular problem, but right now,  e-texts create other problems. Keep reading.)

Anyway, I was skeptical. And also a little worried that my authority over my own damn classroom and subject of study was being a little more than undermined. But I decided to wait and see.  And sure enough, a few weeks later, when the bookstore put up the available books for my class on the web site, there was a Nook Study option for exactly one book among the many I had ordered.

Want to guess which book it was?

Go ahead, guess.

Yup, that’s right, it was the freakin’ Saga of the Volsungs. Motherf@#%&r! So I calmed down, download the g&%damn Nook Study software and, through my campus bookstore site (replicating exactly what the students would have to do), sent Barnes and Noble $6.00 for a Nook Study version of what I thought was a Penguin Classics edition of Jesse Byock’s translation of The Saga of the Volsungs.  Actually, even this part of the process was a little infuriating.  I used PayPal to order the e-text though the bookstore web site (because I could and because I felt like doing so), but when I downloaded the e-reader software and submitted the code that the purchase receipt included, the book showed up in my Nook Study library but wouldn’t open. When I clicked on “tell me more” (or whatever the help button said when I tried to open the book) it said I had to register a credit card at O rly? Are they going to charge me again? So I called Barnes and Noble Nook Study support (well, I had to go through a few menus to get to the right people on the phone) and the friendly guy on the phone told me that yes, I still had to register a credit card even though I’d purchase the book through my school with my PayPal account.  How many of my students do you think would give up before this point?  A few, I think. Some of them don’t even have credit cards. We’ve got broke-ass students who live hand to mouth, but remember, it’s all about saving students money!  (Not the last time I’ll bring that up.) And even after all that, it didn’t seem to want to open right away, and so I re-downloaded it and had to manually transfer it into my library. And then the original appeared and I had two copies.  Sigh.

OK, so technical difficulties aside, I finally opened up the book.  Guess what I found.

Go ahead, guess.

That’s right, the freakin’ 1870 translation by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson.

*headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*  Motherf@#%&ng *headdesk*

Look, if I were teaching Victorian medievalism, the Morris and Magnusson translation would be teh awsome1! omg!  But I am not and it’s not the translation I want (not least because they write in this craptastic, fake old-timey language that’s like a bad modernization of Middle English and has nothing to do with Old Norse — they use “hight” for “called,” for pete’s sake!). But it doesn’t really matter why I don’t want it, because I am the g@%damn expert here and the books in my freakin’ class should be my choice, based on my freakin’ expertise, not the result of some corporation’s sloppy computer match of titles.

What’s more, remember the local representative’s mantra that e-texts would save students money?  Maybe that’s true in other cases, but it sure isn’t in this one. Sure, $6.00 is less than $11.20, but that $5.20 savings is worthless if the prof tells the the student it’s the wrong freakin’ book and they have to go buy the right one. Oh, and guess what? The bookstore won’t (usually) refund the e-texts (nor can students sell them back), so with the wrong plus the right text, they’re out $17.20.  Oh, but wait, there’s more.  Remember what I said about the Kindle version above?  That’s right, Barnes and Noble is trying to sell the students a public domain book that’s available for free on the internet!  So even if it were the right edition, they’re cheating the students by charging them $6.00 for something they can get for free!

The good news is that I called the bookstore and arranged to have the link for the Nook version removed from the web site — though they had to call the corporate offices to do that and it took a week or so. I have to double check that they remembered to remove the card for the e-text from the physical bookshelves, too, but I’m sure that’s not difficult to handle. And the manager said that if any early-bird student did happen to buy the e-text before we could do all this, the bookstore would, in this case, refund their money. And I alerted all my colleagues and so maybe they’ll vet all of their texts, too, and if this comes up again, maybe the people in our bookstore will start to see the pattern of the problem, and not just think, Oh, there goes that crazy Dr. Virago again.

There’s a bigger problem here that what’s the best translation of The Saga of the Volsungs, and that’s that Barnes and Noble is trying to pass off craven money-making as being a champion for students, all the while getting between me and my authority in the classroom and over my subject — and I’m sure it’s not limited to my experience. It’s not a problem of e-texts, per se, but e-texts are a vulnerable area right now for such things to happen because they’re so relatively new and the practices surrounding them (the ways we purchase, use, and consume them — the difficulty of reviewing them) are in flux. It is, however, a problem of corporate-owned campus bookstores (not at all new — my own undergraduate bookstore was also a B&N store, and I just past my 20th reunion year) and, possibly, of the greater corporatization of higher education in general, especially in the edu-tech sector. Frankly, I don’t see giants like B&N and Amazon ever caring about whether the e-text they’ve forced on us are the right texts. As long as their quarterly profits go up because of this venture and as long as their cogs in the machine buy that they’re saving students money and chirp that mantra happily to professors and students, they’ll keep it all up, and more of my time (and yours, and yours, and yours) will be spent wrestling with these tasks instead of working with students and the knowledge we produce.

>Vellum, paper, computer screens, and teaching with technology

>ETA: I changed the title of the post so that you can see right away that this post involves students and teaching, as well as slightly more abstract ideas about the technologies of text.

So a comment Heo Cwaeth left me on yesterday’s Snow Day post and a post over at the Valve got me to thinking about the relative (in)accessibility of manuscripts, books, and the World Wide Web today and in their respective heydays and salad days. (And the Westminster Dog Club show got me thinking about the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. More on that later, but the point is: any topic A has an easy chance of making me think of medieval-related topic B.)

Heo Cwaeth commented that she, too, had a snow day, but she organized an online discussion so that her students didn’t fall behind on the syllabus. I didn’t do that and it’s not just because I was happy to have the day “off” (which I spent grading and writing paper topics, so it was still a “teaching” day). I didn’t do that because I’m not sure I could’ve gotten the message out to my students and because I’m not sure they all would’ve had access to be able to participate. Many of them don’t have computers or online connections at home. Seriously. *Many* of them. they and their families see it as a luxury. They rely on campus computers and public libraries, both of which were closed yesterday. Medieval Woman wrote the other day about students text-messaging and checking e-mail during class, which is not a problem I have at all, and not because my students are so polite and respectful of authority. (Actually, many of them are. Too much so. That has its own frustrations.) Too many people make way too many assumptions about the multi-tasking, technology-wise Millenials: those are not my students. In my classroom, *I’m* usually the most techy person in the room. And it’s because I’ve had access to a computer in my home for 15 years now (although I didn’t go online until about 10 years ago). And I’ve had that access not because I was particularly rich (um, yeah, those were my paralegal and grad student days, when I was getting poverty discounts on my utilities) but because I’d come from a culture — middle class, professional, whatever — that saw technology as a necessity, not a luxury, and so even when I had precious little money, I bought computers when I needed them. Sometimes I got by on relatively ancient technology, but I had the basics and I kept up at least in theory with what could be done with better equipment. But that’s not my students.

Now, there are some people in my university who think that all students should learn skills related to communicating online and therefore that every student should be required to take at least one DL course. I think there are better ways of doing this — how about a F2F course with a web component? How about a series of courses on “The Web in X discipline”? — they’re right that our students don’t know how to do these things. Every semester a handful of them don’t know how to send attachments, for example, and many of them read e-mail on the web and don’t realize that there are mail readers that will download and archive their mail. But what they’re wrong about — very wrong — is the requirement, which essentially will serve as a tax — either figurative or literal — on those many students who will have to drive to computer labs and libraries to participate in the class, or else finally buy a computer and subscribe to a cable connection at home. At that point, you might as well have a F2F class with all students having to be there.

This brings me to the post at the Valve, written by Tedra Osell by way of introducing herself as one of the newest members of their fold. At the end of the post, she writes:

Apparently the oldest title still in (continuous) circulation has just left off printing entirely, becoming a purely online publication. I don’t read Swedish, so I can’t decipher a word of the thing, although “logga in” is both obvious and, to anglophone ears, funny.

Poor Hans Holm, the paper’s editor for twenty years, thinks it’s “a cultural disaster.” I think it’s fabulous. A readership of a thousand people was huge three hundred years ago; now it’s miniscule by newspaper standards. If the most important effect of print culture was its democratizing potential (answer: yes), then online publication–cheap, self-archiving, and available worldwide–expands the project exponentially.

I’m glad she wrote “democratizing potential” and not something that suggested an immediate change, because certainly it’s not like Caxton opened up his print shop one day (to give an English example) and the masses rallied around saying “Huzzah! We can now afford and read books and newspapers must not be far behind! Long live our new democratic nation!” (Although, as an alternate universe picture of the late 15th century, this cracks me up.) Anyway, I digress. Yes, print had a democratizing potential, but that was in part because it was cheap. The web, meanwhile, while “self-archiving” and “available worldwide” is not, pace Tedra, “cheap.” The computer I’m writing this on cost me about $2000 (it’s a small notebook – more expensive than desktops) 2 1/2 years ago, and I only finished paying off the credit card debt it was lumped in with last year. To me, that was a drop in the bucket, an investment in myself and my work, and worth every penny. And to most of the Swedish nation who’d read the paper Tedra refers to, it wouldn’t be a big expense, either, since Sweden has an extraordinarily high standard of living. To my students — who aren’t exactly living in squalor — it’s a luxury. A newspaper or a book is a lot cheaper, epsecially if it’s the free weekly or a used paperback. Heck, many of my students don’t even have cable because it’s too expensive — which explains why they don’t get my references to The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Battlestar Galactica.

And over at The Valve, the commenters pointed out the technological obsolesence problem of electronic archives, and I have to agree with them. Bullock has a bunch of writing from graduate school that’s saved in AmiPro, which no word processing program today can open. He also has letters from his grandparents from the 1930s which he can read just fine, but reel-to-reel tape recordings of them from the 1950s which he can’t access because he doesn’t have the hardware. I’m sure some specialist could solve both of these problems, but that’s not exactly democratizing, is it? There might be a kind of Ockham’s Razor-like theory of technology here — that the more complex the text-archiving machinery, the more likely it is to be inaccessible to the average person in subsequent generations, and so the simpler you make an archive, the better it will survive. This is why I keep thinking about printing out (on acid free paper, natch) and binding the years of e-mail I have saved from various friends, especially the Pastry Pirate. I have boxes and boxes of long letters from friends all around the world from high school and college, but in grad school I moved entirely to e-mail. Someday a cultural historian or archeologist might find those letters from my youth, but they probably won’t find the e-mails, unless I get around to that printing and binding project.

My reference to acid-free paper brings me to another issue of the archives and the survival of print text. There’s many a 19th century print object — books, periodicals, etc. — that’s in much worse shape than the manuscripts that Sir Robert Cotton preserved, and *he* had a fire! And it’s all because of the acid in the paper. Vellum’s tougher and lasts longer. Of course, vellum wasn’t exactly simple or cheap to make. A full size Bible could cost a whole herd of sheep or goats, and the man hours involved to turn those animals into page and those blank folio into inscribed text — well it’s beyond my ability to reckon at the moment. And then there’s the whole animal ethics issue involved, and while I’m not a vegetarian, I can see how books made out of animal skin might be a problem for some people today. So no, I’m not one of those wacky medievalist who think everything was better back then. What’s more, the Beowulf manuscript was badly damaged in Cotton’s fire, and continued to deteriorate over time as a result. If it weren’t for Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin’s transcriptions — on paper — in the late 18th century, and for the use of incandescant and fiber-optic light in the 19th and 20th centuries, much of the text would have been permanently lost to us, having crumbled or faded away. So yes, subsequent technologies have helped recover the older technology of writing on vellum.

But that doesn’t mean that new always equals better. Electronic archives can and do supplement physical ones (whether vellum or paper or whatever) and they can make rare items more accessible — in a kind of translated form — to those who might not otherwise be able to travel to them, but as manuscript scholars constantly tell librarians, digitization doesn’t replace the original and we still need to see it. Bringing it back to my students, where I started all of this: in my mediated classroom I can show them all sorts of manuscripts online, and I can archive the syllabus and handouts on our course homepage in case they lose the hardcopies I gave them, and so I make use of such technologies, very frequently, in fact. But I also try to keep the cost of textbooks down because I know they barely scrape by, and I’m no longer horrified that they don’t write all over their texts so that they can sell them back at the end of the semester (no more “What? An English major who doesn’t keep his or her books?! The horror!). The books cost about $100 and they might get $25-30 back at the end of the semester. If they see that as a windfall, no wonder then that they don’t want to pay $50/month for a cable modem or $1000 for a new computer capable of high-speed connections.

In some ways I wonder if our own age doesn’t look a little more like a pre-print age than we realize, with only the “gentry” and the upper classes able to afford the technologies that give them wider or at least more convenient access to some kinds of knowledge and information. Books are still around — for now — and I think the reports of their death have been gorssly exaggerated, but there’s a serious access-gap with online technologies that we have to keep in mind at institutions like mine, even as we gently urge students to learn how to use these tools.