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- From the Tech Desk
Indie Groundbreaking Book: Western Civilization
History Book for Kindle Singlehandedly Renders the Old Textbook Model Obsolete
As someone who just graduated from college a couple of years ago, I still have a deep-seated, visceral hatred for textbooks. The flaws behind these compendiums of knowledge are numerous. Not only are they exorbitantly expensive—taking advantage of a subset of the population (ostensibly, young and broke students) that can hardly afford to pay for lunch, let alone an $80 hunk of paper and cardboard—but they are also often biased, poorly written, and limited in viewpoint. Perhaps worst of all, most textbooks seek to offer concrete, unchanging lessons about subjects that are always changing and evolving, and as a result, textbook publishers have to flood the market with new editions of their products every couple of years. It's a blatant waste of resources, especially in a day and age when the internet contains all of the same knowledge for free.
For all of these reasons and others, I have long wished to watch the textbook industry die a distressed and fiery death. After spending some time with this month's indie groundbreaking book, though, I might settle for a simple shift in format.
That book, titled Western Civilization: The Beginnings of a Single Planet, is a 270-page textbook that covers—as the title suggests—the history of Western Civilization. Indeed, textually and content-wise, The Beginnings of a Single Planet probably isn't too much different than the Western Civ textbooks that most of us studied back in high school or college. The writing—from Bernard Reilly, a professor emeritus of history at Villanova University—is accomplished and involving, and the information provided is thorough. On the surface, though, this publication just looks like another history book. And by definition, most history textbooks are about as far from "groundbreaking" as you can get.
Where Western Civilization: The Beginnings of a Single Planet differentiates itself from competing titles, though, is in format and presentation. A printed copy of the book is available, through Amazon.com's CreateSpace platform. However, as readers will learn upon visiting the book's Amazon page, Beginnings of a Single Planet was "specifically designed to be read on a digital device while online."
What does that mean, exactly? It means that, instead of shying away from the fluidity of information like huge print textbooks do, The Beginnings of a Single Planet has embraced it. Professor Reilly, together with his son Steve, worked to completely integrate this book with the internet. They did it with 1,500 embedded Wikipedia links, which take readers to encyclopedia entries, maps, data representations, relevant pieces of art, and other logs of information that can be used to deepen the learning experience and expand reader understanding of the subject at hand. Some of the links even direct readers to animated .gif maps, "showing the rise and fall of empires, the spread of the black death, ancient migrations and other trends that take place over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years." Suffice to say that this book offers a completely different way to absorb history than what any of us grew up with.
Would teachers or professors forego a more traditional textbook for something like this? It's hard to say. On one hand, many academics have spent the past decade hammering the point home that Wikipedia is not a reputable source. Due to its size and scope, the ubiquitous online encyclopedia is a true goldmine of information. However, because anyone can edit a Wikipedia page, it ends up being a goldmine of information that cannot necessarily be verified. That one obstacle could keep the father-and-son collaboration of Western Civilization: The Beginnings of a Single Planet out of classrooms, but that would be a shame. Worse, it would be a denial from the academic sector that modern technology can solve many of the problems that traditional textbooks pose.
First of all, the value of linking and Wikipedia in this context needs to be addressed. By offering 1,500 links to Wikipedia, Bernard and Steve Reilly really might be aligning their history book with an unreliable source. However, they are also aligning their history book with a source that consistently offers the most up-to-date information available. On a long enough timeline, any textbook becomes unreliable and disreputable just by being out of date. New discoveries and perspectives mold and shape of every academic subject over time—even something as seemingly set in stone as history. To be able to have a living textbook that receives updates—even from a "questionable" source like Wikipedia—is invaluable.
Only time will tell if educators embrace Western Civilization: The Beginnings of a Single Planet, or if other textbook authors and publishers adopt the new Reilly format. However, the truth is that this groundbreaking publication singlehandedly renders the print textbook model obsolete. Imagine an educational world where all textbooks are digital Kindle downloads. As the $9.99 price tag for Beginnings of a Single Planet proves, such a scenario would save students a fortune. More than that, though, an adoption of this format would essentially eliminate that annoying "new addition every two years" trend that has made textbook publishers the real-world equivalent of Lord Voldemort to myself and many others. Internet linking would allow these books to always offer the most up-to-date information. And even if authors or publishers did want to go back and edit their textbooks, they could do so easily—without a massive and costly print run.
Interested in checking out Western Civilization: The Beginnings of a Single Planet for yourself? Check out the Kindle version, available on Amazon.com.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at email@example.com.