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Writing in textbooks : Critics or vandals?

Tony Parkin recalls his shock at receiving vandalised textbooks when he first went to school – and wonders if online textbooks like Classoos offer a solution.

I have an abiding memory of the shock experienced when I opened my first textbooks at the secondary school. Previous pupils had actually WRITTEN ON THE PAGES! My copy of Kennedy’s famous Latin book, did not say Shorter Latin Primer, but Shortbread Eating Prime beef. This practice was so widespread then that even today, a search for Kennedy’s Eating Prime on Google will track down the relevant text.

I had been brought up old school. Books in my primary school had been treated with love and respect. The pictures of Canute not turning back the sea, and Alfred burning the cakes were unsullied, and free of added speech bubbles or genitalia. And whilst owned books may have been a rarity at home, every week a dozen books passed through our house, non-fiction and fiction alike, thanks to the excellent services of York City Public Library. It was rare, though not unknown, to come across a library book with sections underlined, or comments pencilled in the margin, presumably because diligent librarians withdrew most such books from circulation, lest it encourage others to deface these important shared resources.

Mind, at that time the 60s were approaching, rebellion was in the air, and down south in the capital Joe Orton and Keith Halliwell were changing the course of history by making a hobby of defacing library books. An entry in ‘The Collected Plays of Emlyn Williams’ was subtly changed, through typographic tricks undoubtedly learned while defacing Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer, to read ‘Knickers must fall’. There is some irony, therefore, in finding that the Orton/Halliwell defaced book jackets were many years later put on display by Islington Council.

As I became hardened to the sight of defaced textbooks, and even pornographic graffiti, I also began to understand the boredom and creativity that drove fellow pupils to such behaviour. As fifteen year-old boys we were informed that our set novel for GCE was to be Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’. When we hormonally-charged adolescents came across the line “at fifteen, appearances were mending; she began to curl her hair and long for balls”, much underlining ensued, in an era before the highlighter had been invented. Nowadays there are dozens of websites celebrating creative, and not-so-creative examples of textbook defacement.

The waste from defaced textbooks that have to be pulped must be enormous. Teachers have tried almost everything, there is even a book you can hand out for students to deface, presumably in the hope that they will save their creativity for this one tome, rather than sharing it across all their other textbooks.

Schools subscribing to a service like Classoos can allow all pupils to have their own personal textbooks, to deface or not as they like, in a much more affordable way. Some might mourn the passing of creative textbook additions. I can guarantee that teachers charged with tediously going through defaced textbooks will not be amongst them.


Shorter Latin Primer by B.H. Kennedy
Library books defaced by prankster playwright Joe Orton go on show (Guardian)
The Deface It Yourself Art Book: Release Your Inner Artist, Critic or Vandal
30 Hilariously Defaced Textbooks

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