A Tantrum Regarding Microscope Books

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA



What's going on!?! I decided this afternoon to order a copy of Werner Nachtigall's book Exploring With The Microscope, so I went to some of my regular book sites on the Internet and I found three copies available, one for $42.95, one for $49.95, and one for $59.95! (I'll be using lots of exclamation points in this article.) Just a few years ago, I paid $19.95 for a hardcover edition. I wanted a copy to give to a young friend of mine who is a sophomore at the university and has recently gotten interested in microscopy. The marketing people behind advertising this book must have precocious offspring with generous allowances, since it is promoted as a book for children from ages 9 to 12! I'll grant that the book has many fine and informative color photographs and should catch the interest of many curious children, but it also has information on subjects such as types of contrast methods that will be a bit beyond the range of most children. Perhaps it will inspire them to seek out other sources, perhaps not. In any case, it seems misguided and commercially inept to define such a narrow “focus group”.

Nachtigall does mention that he began as a child by constructing simple microscopes at a very small cost to indulge his passion. However, he shows us in the book photographs of some of the better middle and high range microscopes available today and in the recent pasta real risk in terms of acquisitive teenagers of today. I very much like Dr. Nachtigall's book and I think that it is a real shame that such a volume is no longer available. Perhaps the wonderful Dover Press will reprint it in an inexpensive edition and provide a real educational service.

Confronting this greedy, exploitative situation, I decided on an alternative volumeDr. Eric V. Grave's book Exploring the Invisible only to discover, to my horror, that there was one listing for this paperback edition at $82.50! An utter outrage! But it gets better, that is to say, worse. David J. Patterson published an excellent reference Free-living Freshwater Protozoa, with many drawings and fine color photographs, many of them taken with phase contrast or differential interference contrast. When it first came out in a hardcover edition, I decided it was worth the investment and bought a copy for $75 which, for me, is a lot to pay for a single reference work, but it has proved to be well worth it. Well, now you can buy a paperback edition for only $95! Perhaps this is a new marketing strategy for the future. Publish a book in hardback and then a few years when the hardback has gone out of print, publish a paperback edition that costs more than the original hardback did. Now there's a marketing psychology I don't understand or maybe I do; perhaps it's a variation on the old P.T. Barnum ploy.

God forbid you should get interested in a particular organism. Several years ago, when browsing on the Internet, I came across a copy of Vance Tartar's splendid volume The Biology of Stentor. If you are not familiar with Stentor, it is a large ciliate which is trumpet-shaped, thus the name. It has quite a few species, one of which is rose-colored, another is green from endosymbiotic zoochlorellae, and the first prize goes to Stentor coeruleus. This remarkable organism is the largest of the Stentors, often reaching a length of over 1,500 microns when fully extendedit is highly contractileit has a long beaded chain nucleus, it frequently produces “monster formations” when water and/or food conditions become poor, and it possesses a unique dichroic pigment called “stentorin”. Most of the time, when you observe S. coeruleus, it will appear bluish-green; however, if you shift the light to the right angle, the pigment refracts as a pinkish-rose color. So, a remarkable organism and Tartar did some remarkable experiments with it, including micro-surgery. So, as I was saying, before you interrupted me, I was browsing on the Internet and found a copy of this book for $30. I wrote myself a note to order it the next day. Well, as my wife, my students, and my colleagues will attest, I write many notes to myself and it must have been a note-worthy day, because my Stentor note got buried and forgottensomething which I deeply regret. This afternoon, I checked my Internet books sources and found two copies availableone for $200 and the other for $325! Now, remember these are used books! “Some scuffing on the front cover,” etc. Fortunately, even though I am retired, the university still extends me library privileges, so I can check out books for a year and then take them back in and get them renewed for another year. If another patron wishes to use it, the library notifies me and I have a week or so to return it. Sadly, nobody but me seems interested in Stentor around here. No one has ever recalled it in the several years that I've had Tartar's book checked out.

Highly technical, specialized books, especially those containing photomicrographs printed on glossy paper, are, admittedly, expensive to produce, but it becomes self-defeating when publishers charge prices that are so exorbitant that even many college and university libraries can no longer afford them. Let me give you a particularly striking example. A marvelous series of high quality volumes have been published under the title The Microscopic Anatomy of Invertebrates. Over a dozen volumes have been published and the series is ongoing. The early volumes can be obtained for $275 each! As I suggested earlier, a book has to be a truly remarkable one for me to pay more than $100 for it. Volumes A,B,C (bound as one?) on Chelicerate Arthropods is available for a mere $1,1199.30! If you're into bargains you can pick up Volume 11A, Insecta for only $442.20.

The most recent volume in the series, I saw listed at $1,085!! It is of a modest size in terms of number of pages and, while it is true that it is on a group of molluscs that will likely be of interest to a relatively small number of specialists and while it has excellent photomicrographsmany of them are transmitted electron microscope imagesand, while it represents cutting-edge research, the price is bleeding-edge! And there is also a single volume of 2,517 pages under the same title by the same editor (a compilation? a selection?) priced at $1,833.95!!!

All of this has gotten out of hand. College and university students now have to pay nearly $100 for a textbook for a general biology course. True, there are lots of pretty color pictures, diagrams, graphs, and charts. However, in some instances, the overall quality is less than sterling. Many textbooks, certainly not all, are written by mediocre academics holding positions at fair-to-middling institutions and these individuals are sometimes desperate to supplement their incomes, get publication credits toward tenure, promotion, and salary raises, and enhance their reputations (name recognition). The textbooks that become bestsellers (“Bestsellers are ill-smellers!”Nietzsche) increase the profit feeding frenzy of a significant number of publishers. Students, wisely, at least economically speaking, will try to find used copies of textbooks whenever possible. Such a strategy is heretical from a publisher's point of view, because someone else will be making the profit. So, a new market strategy evolvedremember evolution is a random process and does not necessarily work toward the “better”; in fact, more often it doesn'tthis new strategy being a NEW, REVISED, and IMPROVED edition. How often should such a new edition appear? Well, in terms of profit for the publishers and the author(s), annually! That will chop off at the knees those upstarts trying to exploit used copies. What constitutes a “new revised” edition? Often the changes are so minor that a student can buy a used copy of the previous edition and suffer no loss at all in terms of 'earth-shaking' breakthroughs.

All of this may sound quite cynical, but having taught for 40 years at a state university which has many students with modest economic means, I get very angry at the exploitation of educational institutions that has become rampant in the last two decades. Public secondary schools have had their budgets slashed to such a degree that teachers spend a portion of their own income to provide supplies to their students. Secondary schools are in such desperate straits that they have contracts with vendors of snack foodspotato chips, candy bars, soft drinksin order to make ends meet. Some educational materials are provided more and more by corporations who also include advertisements for their companies. Some textbooks even have advertising incorporated into their pages. These trends represent a kind of crass commercialism that reveals some of the darker aspects of 'free enterprise'.

These days in order for an amateur to build a good collection of reference works, he or she must haunt both bookstores and the Internet with persistence and, if you find a volume you want at a price you are willing to pay, you need to act quickly. Modern technology has made the search for such works easier, but also more competitive. Occasionally, a company that deals with overstock, such as Hamilton Books, will have something of interest for the amateur microscopist and again one must act quickly. Several years ago, they had copies of Arthur Giese's book Blepharisma, which is a fascinating study of a genus of ciliates, some of which possess a pink photo-active pigment. It was selling for $7.50. I bought two copies, one for myself and one for a colleague, a first rate cell biologist whose laboratory Dr. Giese had worked in for a couple of summers. My colleague had been relying on a library copy, so at such a reasonable price, I was pleased to be able to give him a small gift for his helpful advice and support over the years. Now that volume sells for from $16 to $65. There are book dealers who are also out there hunting for bargain prices on such specialty items and some of whom will buy multiple copies and hold them, selling one copy at a time and continually inflating the price. So, be quick!

Finally, don't forget to check for presses that issue reprints. As I mentioned earlier, Dover Press is wonderful, but, of course, their offerings are limited. Unfortunately, even some of their editions go out of print. They used to offer a reprint of Dobell's book on Leeuwenhoek, but it is no longer available. The price of Robert Hooke's Micrographia has become a bit steep at $57.50, but it is a reprint of the 1665 first edition. They have also published a reprint of the classic work of D'Arcy Thompson On Growth and Form consisting of 1116 pages. Unfortunately, this should have been printed as two volumes, with sewn bindings. This volume tends to split; nonetheless, it is splendid to have it in print at the reasonable price of $29.95.

One has to check repeatedly and also compare prices from different dealers. Let me give you two examples. There is an important older work for anyone who is interested in Paramecia: The Biology of Paramecium by Ralph Wichterman. You can get a copy of the first edition for $24. First editions of technical scientific books often don't have the monetary value that a first edition of Darwin or Goethe would have. If you want the revised edition of Wichterman's book, you may have to pay $40 or more or you can get a reprint in paperback for only $203 or, for $10 more, a reprint in hardback. Clearly the publishing business is very strange, but then, in the end, most any enterprise involving human beings is strange.

I emphasize again that one has to be persistent and comparative. This afternoon, I was browsing the Internet, looking for a different book for my young friend, since the prices on Nachtigall's and Grave's books are over the top. My friend seems intrigued by pond organisms, so I thoughtwhy not check out the prices on the old classic Kudo's Protozoology. From my point of view, the fifth edition is the most desirable. This was a popular book among biologists and, so the fifth edition went through a number of reprintings from 1966 to 1977, however, I don't think there were any major changes. In any case, I was able to find a copy of the 1966 fifth edition for $7.95, but if you want the 1977 copy, you can get one for $366. Needless to say, I bought the 1966 printing.

Good hunting!

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