Books may be going out of style, and textbooks may conjure up bad memories, but I have found collecting textbooks to be a rewarding hobby and an easy one to get started in. If you are of an academic build and like to get your hands dusty with forgotten knowledge, old textbook collecting may be a fun way to fill up your bookshelves.
I’m a mathematics person, and I’ve found that textbooks published before 1960 are far superior to modern texts for reference and adult learners. They treat you like an educated adult, and while they are less beginner friendly, they also have more information and a presentation that forces you to actively think about what is written in front of you. In short, older textbooks are far superior for the mathematician, and that was what turned me on to this pursuit.
Since I got the bug for textbook collecting, I started to scour book sales, and I was surprised to find an abundance of old academic texts. Before the internet, college graduates held on to their books in case they needed something for reference, so many people still have textbooks from their college days, or even their grandfather’s college days. This is especially true in the sciences, where textbooks were often the definitive references they would use through their professional career. Other subjects with rich textbook pickings are medicine and law, for obvious reasons.
Once you know what subjects you want to pursue, start at “Friends of the Library” sales and garage sales. While they aren’t always the richest pickings, the textbooks you collect there are usually the cheapest. Plus, you usually find people liquidating entire collections at once, so you can buy 6-10 books in one spot. Textbook collecting requires minimal investment beyond that. A cheap bookshelf is all you need for storage.
When you get a new book, look it up and see what history it has. Some may have been famous texts in their day, and some may be still considered important today. When I found an early edition of Ray’s Arithmetic, imagine how surprised I was to find out that homeschoolers are going back to Ray’s Arithmetic today because of its unique approach. I’ve also found correction notes by the author in a first edition of a textbook, likely from a student who was enrolled in the class (the author was a teacher at the University of Pittsburgh).
Each old textbook has a history. They were the internet of their day: the only place a professional could turn for information on the spot. They represent a doorway into what was important at the time, or in the case of fields that have evolved significantly, into the very core of knowledge at the time. For instance, an 1850’s chemistry textbook I have seen had no knowledge of the elements that we recognize immediately today. Radioactivity would not be understood for over 40 years! It is amazing how far we’ve come in only 150 years
Old textbooks can be a lot of fun. If you are into the sciences, medicine, or law, I highly recommend dedicating some space in your book collection to textbook collecting. It is affordable, rewarding, and worth the effort.