Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 December 2010
The book originated in the suggestion of a publisher, as many more good books have done than the arrogance of the man of letters is commonly inclined to admit.G. K. Chesterton, on The Pickwick Papers
The College Textbook
A textbook is designed specifically to help an instructor teach a subject and students learn it. Although scholarly monographs and collections of articles are sometimes used as supplementary or even main texts in a college course, their primary purpose is to disseminate new thought or research findings. Textbooks, by contrast, rarely represent the culmination of research or what is traditionally considered “scholarly” activity. Instead, they summarize, organize, and analyze the accumulated wisdom of an area of knowledge, presenting it in a way that is accessible to students at a specific level of competence.
The writers of the most successful textbooks in a field are not necessarily – or even usually – at the cutting edge of research. They are more often, though not always, extremely good teachers. The skills required to write a good textbook are those of organization, synthesis, explication, and communication. However, the ability to communicate orally in a lecture class or seminar does not automatically translate into the ability to write effectively. As you write a textbook, you do not get instant student responses of understanding or befuddlement. You cannot carry on a conversation or discussion. You must decide, on the basis of logic, instinct, and experience, what requires extensive explanation and what will be grasped quickly.