Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Where textbooks come from

File under: Those Who Can't, When We Were Young. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:51 am.

When I was a kid, my father told me about a strange phenomenon, which was later explained to him, that he’d observed while eating on airplanes. Back in the seventies and early eighties, Dad travelled a lot on business, and he noticed that the slices of hard-boiled eggs he received never included any ends. Each egg slice that made its way onto his tray consisted of yellow and white concentric circles - and, even more curiously, they all appeared to be congruent. At first, my father chalked this up to coincidence - maybe he just always happened to get the middles of the eggs? - but soon, he noticed that his seatmates also received only egg middles. It was nearly a statistical impossibility that such a large random sample of egg slices would never contain the end pieces. Were the airline chefs throwing out the yolkless ends? It didn’t make any sense.

Dad’s question was answered some time later, when he had the opportunity to watch a video on the production of airline food. Included was a segment specifically devoted to the preparation of eggs. At last, a chance to settle this question!

The documentary showed a huge, industrial-sized kitchen, where several chefs were diligently cracking eggs, separating the whites from the yolks. One large mixer processed hundreds of egg yolks; a second contained the whites. The chefs then poured the yolks into a long, hollow tube, where they were boiled. Then they formed the whites into a sheet half an inch or so thick, where they were hardened just enough to be moved without collapsing. Then, the whites were positioned to surround the stick of yolk. The entire apparatus was cooked one final time, resulting in a symmetric, several-foot-long cylinder of hard-boiled egg - which a machine then sliced into the discs that would be served to airline passengers.

This is why my father never got the ends of eggs.

In related news, friend and reader oxeador sent me a link to The Muddle Machine, a textbook editor’s firsthand account of why elementary and high school texts used in the United States are bland, incoherent, expensive, and updated with every new phase of the moon - even as they offer little new content with each edition. Tamim Ansary has written an appalling exposition of how a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of money, a lot of politics, and hardly any pedagogical or subject expertise has given rise to books that serve their creators and their financial backers rather than the students and teachers that use them.

I got a hint of things to come when I overheard my boss lamenting, “The books are done and we still don’t have an author! I must sign someone today!”

Every time a friend with kids in school tells me textbooks are too generic, I think back to that moment. “Who writes these things?” people ask me. I have to tell them, without a hint of irony, “No one.”

Last year, I did some contract work writing and editing a textbook - elementary school math for college students, more or less. “Writing” and “editing” such a text consists of taking perfectly functional texts and guidelines, and processing them in a manner that is disturbingly similar to the way that our airline chefs of yore mass-produced hard-boiled egg slices. My result, arrived at after hours of poring through specs and sources, differed from the existing texts about as substantially as the egg tube different from its (hard-boiled) constituent parts. Ansary’s experience is similar:

[A]t each grade level, the editors distill their notes into detailed outlines…[later], they divide the outline into theoretically manageable parts and assign these to writers to flesh into sentences.

What comes back isn’t even close to being the book. The first project I worked on was at this stage when I arrived. My assignment was to reduce a stack of pages 17 inches high, supplied by 40 writers, to a 3-inch stack that would sound as if it had all come from one source. The original text was just ore. A few of the original words survived, I suppose, but no whole sentences.

To avoid the unwelcome appearance of originality at this stage, editors send their writers voluminous guidelines. I am one of these writers, and this summer I wrote a 10-page story for a reading program. The guideline for the assignment, delivered to me in a three-ring binder, was 300 pages long.

There’s so little I can add to this piece; it’s a bit long, but it’s an easy read. And Asmary does provide some constructive suggestions at the end, the second of which I especially support:

Reduce basals to reference books — slim core texts that set forth as clearly as a dictionary the essential skills and information to be learned at each grade level in each subject. In content areas like history and science, the core texts would be like mini-encyclopedias, fact-checked by experts in the field and then reviewed by master teachers for scope and sequence.

Sounds a lot better than the current state of affairs, where politicians and lobbyists play those roles.

[Related article that I’ve linked before: Underwood Dudley’s “review” of a calculus textbook.]


  1. First time at your website. Thought you might appreciate this tidbit about textbook selection from the past.


    - Jeff — 3/4/2006 @ 10:03 am

  2. I like going through the Math stacks and glancing at the old Calc texts before moving on to whatever I’m looking for. Those from the 50s or so were maybe 6 by 10 by 1 inches around, and dense. I have my grandfather’s guide to integral and differental caclulus, which was smaller than that even, and used to be used in the military around WWII. It’s really neat how very concise the text is, and how more like a “real” math book it seems than the distilled, dumbed-down, error-ridden substitutes that are fed to the masses are.

    - rosona — 3/4/2006 @ 10:21 am

  3. so basically, pre-college textbooks aren’t real books! I am hardly surprised, given my memory of such books.

    also, the link to the Dudley article doesn’t work. (I think you forgot a slash before the file name.) [Fixed; thanks. -MS]

    - Isabel — 3/4/2006 @ 11:24 am

  4. Excellent commentary on the process that produces such boring swill.

    - Amerloche — 3/4/2006 @ 1:46 pm

  5. On a vaguely related note, this is a pretty amusing textbook review.


    - Cordelia — 3/4/2006 @ 3:42 pm

  6. Good links, Jeff and Cordelia; thanks.

    Though the Feynman article is depressing (and, in fairness, he was reviewing books that were written during the beginning of that terrible mistake, the new-math era), my experience with the old versus new texts is similar to rosona’s. Give me a dense, 200-page, picture-free text over the thousand-page, calculator-heavy crap published these days, any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/4/2006 @ 4:38 pm

  7. When a graphing calculator and a thesaurus really, really love each other . . .

    - wolfangel — 3/4/2006 @ 5:56 pm

  8. Cordelia: that just made my day…

    - Willie — 3/4/2006 @ 9:03 pm

  9. I repeat my Euclid’s Elements comment from the previous thread.

    =Dogbert paw wave again=

    - meep — 3/5/2006 @ 12:52 am

  10. “Adequacy.org was a satirical web site” says Wikipedia. Sorry, Cordelia…

    - Yasha — 3/5/2006 @ 9:57 am

  11. Wolfangel - actually, while the data clearly indicates that the traditional graphing calculator/thesaurus model does not always result in quality texts, I worry about tampering with that formula. Imagine the sort of textbooks that would result from the union of two graphing calculators or two thesauruses. We need balance! Won’t anybody think of the children?

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/5/2006 @ 8:40 pm

  12. I’m just thinking of the money.

    - meep — 3/6/2006 @ 2:16 am

  13. Wow Cordelia, that was awesome :)

    - Today Wendy — 3/8/2006 @ 7:44 am

  14. How a textbook is born

    The challenge, should you choose to accept it: Read this entertaining and horrifying article that describes the process by which…

    - O'DonnellWeb — 3/8/2006 @ 9:49 am

  15. Cordelia, incredible link! I cannot believe what I read. That guy who argues that Lagrange, Abel, Galois and Hilbert are made up characters who never existed! But if MS allows me, this paragraph is precious:

    “In the extensive amount of mathematical knowledge I acquired for my degree in finance, I have never heard of an ‘Abelian Group’. Undoubtedly it is another part of ‘Pure Mathematics’, That useless branch of study that many academics turn to when they find they are ill-prepared to survive in real world subjects, and must pick something which allows them to spend their time poring over obscure symbols that have no bearing on reality whatsoever. Too weak to deal with the uncertainty that is real life, they must study a field with clearly defined axioms so that they can feel ’secure’ in their ‘knowledge’. Such pursuits are vain and self-masturbatory, and I find it repulsive that you would consider any of it’s practitioners to be a ‘heavy-hitter’ in mathematics.”

    - oxeador — 3/9/2006 @ 10:53 am

  16. Guys, look at Yasha’s comment above. The book review on Algebra is a joke. Most finance guys would know they’re not mathematical experts, just as I don’t pretend to understand accounting, even though I have math degrees.

    - meep — 3/9/2006 @ 12:28 pm

  17. Oh, I am duped. :(

    - oxeador — 3/9/2006 @ 1:02 pm

  18. New visitor here, referred by Joanne Jacobs’ blog. We’re a home educating family, and one of the reasons we started — apart from the local lousy school and flimsy Alberta curriculum — was our desire to avoid textbooks as much as possible.

    In a previous life, I worked with textbook publishers, and everything I’ve read in “Muddle” and in Diane Ravitch’s “The Language Police”,


    is true, sadly.

    - Becky in Alberta — 3/9/2006 @ 1:53 pm

  19. So I can’t help but wonder: did the textbook guideline book also result from this same writing process? If so, then were the guidelines for writing the guideline book written? And what guidelines were used for writing the guidelines for the guideline book? Are all of our textbooks the result of an infinite recursion?

    - Cousin Dave — 3/14/2006 @ 8:43 am

  20. Cousin Dave, I’ll tell you about my text-writing experience. Basically, I was given very specific guidelines (”Chapter M deals with topic X. Chapter M.1 deals with subtopic X_y, and contains one example, one group activity, and three homework questions.”) One of my projects was to write an instructors’ guide for a related text; the instructions for writing the guide were similarly detailed, and if done properly, the course I was writing for could have been taught by a well-trained monkey.

    I had to write three (or was it four?) chapters for the instructor’s guide. The source material and guidelines for most of the material were reasonable to work with: not quite the way I’d present the material, but decent. One chapter, though, was a train wreck: the content was horribly motivated and arranged, and the applications were so contrived that I couldn’t even pretend they were useful.

    I wrote to the publisher about that chapter, and spoke to them over the phone for an hour, explaining in detail exactly what was wrong with that chapter. They agreed with everything I said. We were on a tight deadline, though, so would I mind rewriting the guidelines? They offered to pay me three times the usual fee for that. Of course I agreed, reworking the source material and then creating the instructor’s guide from that.

    So, I believe that the short answers to your last two questions are both “yes”.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/14/2006 @ 11:06 am

  21. Arrgh! And I thought I was joking…

    - Cousin Dave — 3/16/2006 @ 1:00 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.