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Why are older books thinner?

  1. Mar 16, 2014 #1
    It's not just in physics, it's mainly in math IME, but a lot of older books (pre-1980) for upper-division topics are usually thin. Not giant tomes like you get today. Hence I was thinking of using a lot of these older books to teach myself some things (mainly in math and classical physics topics).

    What do you think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 16, 2014 #2
    I am not sure how you could even quantify that.
  4. Mar 16, 2014 #3
    I do not see your logic here...
  5. Mar 16, 2014 #4
    How could you measure "average thickness" of books as related to time? At best you could get a loose, subjective feeling. I don't even know what "average thickness" would really mean. Number of pages? Number of words? If a book has smaller text and less pages, but more words would it be considered thicker or thinner? Do books "now" have more pages than books "then"? I don't know what that would really mean. What books get included in the averaging? I guess if you really wanted to, you could look up information from universities and count only books that have been used in classes. I don't think anyone has bothered to do that. Especially if you try to account for variations in font size. Even if you were to, I don't know what you would gain from that data.
  6. Mar 16, 2014 #5
    In case it wasn't clear, I meant older books have far fewer pages but seem to have the same density of content per page.

    I read somewhere that modern textbook publishers encourage book bloat among their authors, I guess that touches on what I was asking.
  7. Mar 17, 2014 #6


    Staff: Mentor

    Yes, I know what you mean.

    My dad's math books from the 1940's are a lot more compact and easy to carry (akin to a moleskin notebook) whereas the modern textbook now is like carrying a couple of bricks. The older books had thinner paper and black/white etched diagrams over color pictures and margin asides that make textbooks look like webpages. I guess publishers feel they must entertain the reader more.
  8. Mar 17, 2014 #7


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    Older books, especially those from the 1940s, were printed using less expensive materials, to save resources for the war effort. Newer books are lavishly illustrated, which takes up additional paper to print, and may require a larger page size on which to fit a decent amount of material. Also, some texts, particularly math texts, may be used for more than one course, and hence, contain more material. All in all, it's very subjective.

    One thing which surprises me is that it's the 21st century and we are still lugging around huge paper tomes from which we obtain almost all of our education. Looking at what happened to newspapers over the last decade and print periodicals in general, the textbook publishers, IMO, are desperately fighting to keep the cash cows known as school books from going out of physical print.

    I see no reason that textbooks could not be converted to e-reader format. Having lost access to my personal library of physical books, I have attempted to find scanned versions which I can keep on my computer to keep the information available. Certainly, e-books could incorporate more than just a dry recitation of facts: the whole format could be extended to incorporate video or other media of actual demonstrations or illustrations of concepts. I think a merging of text with something like the Khan Academy videos is possible, but it doesn't appear that the 'critical mass' of people wanting to change the textbook paradigm has gathered yet.
  9. Mar 17, 2014 #8
    Where I go to college you can get every textbook on your, say, kindle or other e-reader.

    I simply prefer physical text for most of my books but I am considering finally joining the modern world and getting the books that I do not have to write in as an electronic format instead of lugging around all these books.

    Some workbooks, though, I will keep buying as text as it's easier to write in them than to invest in an e-reader that allows me to write in and save and print out pages of my e-books. Or perhaps I am mistaken and that is the standard now, I really need to see what e-readers offer.
  10. Mar 17, 2014 #9
    People back then didn't care as much about Money as we do now, generally speaking. Of course you can take me to task for saying that. I read an interview in a local paper a few months ago with a woman who had turned 100, and she spoke about when she was younger. She said people didn't care nearly as much about money, the way people looked, people weren't so materialistic, they enjoyed simple pleasures like hiking, etc. Even my parents and grandparents say the same thing.

    It's just the same with publishers. It's profit before all else these days, for most of them. Modern books have more blank space on a page, larger type, superfluous figures, unnecessary chatter, etc. that bloat the size, they have a seperate book for 'solutions', or usually just hints, they split one book into two volumes, etc., so that they can justify charging you more. But the quality of the binding, materials, etc. has dropped dramatically. I won't even get started on the quality of the content.

    I own a few hardcover and softcover books that are over 50yrs old, and some over 100yrs old, and they are all in good shape, although the very old ones have yellowy pages. Buy a $100 harcover book today, and you'll be lucky if it hasn't fallen apart by the end of your course.

    All in all, they're doing everything they can to squeeze more money out of the consumer, and that's really what it's all about. Isn't that what public companies are about? Maximising profit at all costs?
  11. Mar 17, 2014 #10
    I kind of see where tomservo is coming from, but I think you'll find plenty of pre 70's math and physics books that would challenge the notion that older books were thinner (see first 1 or 2 editions of Halliday-Resnick's Physics or Apostol's Calculus for example).

    If we are referring to the newer iterations of halliday-resnick and Larson's calculus books, then yes newer books are definitely obscenely big. Books like these have magazine quality paper and an obscene amount of historical anecdotes to motivate the subject that -while interesting- are well out of place for a textbook IMO. The key word here is TEXTbook. Full page color illustrations are best left for comic books, no need to make adolescents and young adults destroy their backs carrying around these monstrosities they will barely use beyond looking up homework problems.

    I got myself a kindle recently and am on the quest of amassing optimized pdf/djvu(with a firmware hack) versions of all the textbooks I own and use. Moving with all my books gets expensive.
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2014
  12. Mar 17, 2014 #11
    If I were to use an e-reader it would have to be of sufficient page size and use e-paper--reading off a backlit screen for too long hurts my eyes.
  13. Mar 17, 2014 #12
    There is a firmware hack that optimizes smaller readers for pdfs. My regular kindle touch works just fine with it.

    A4 size ereaders are still a long way from being commercially viable though. Sony and pocketbook have a few 13.3" readers but they are prohibitively expensive/not for the consumer market.
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