Drunk on the knowledge

...that beer is sometimes more rewarding than books

Ah, another new academic year. Time to equip ourselves with the vital tools for rarefied erudition. A fresh pad of clean, white A4. A large biro with pictures of the Spice Girls all over it, a bargain at only £22.99 from Spice Girls plc. A rubber. And an eraser. Multi-coloured ring binders to hold copious amounts of doodles, love letters and the odd paragraph of lecture notes that will later blight the darker days following Easter. More rubbers for Friday night in Pier Pressure - extra safe ones. And a few well-chosen selections from the departmental reading lists.

Lecturers recommend books for their courses in order of importance

  1. "Useful background": books the lecturer was sent review copies of but didn't read.
  2. "Introductory": books for dimwits who are still struggling to unclip the rings on their binder in the second term.
  3. "Recommended": books the lecturer plagiarised for the course notes and exam papers.
  4. "Mandatory": books the lecturer has had published. (Hey, academic salaries don't amount to a hill of beans. Actually, sometimes they are a hill of beans. A small hill.)
    Top marks in this latter category to the authors of "Professional Issues in Software Engineering", which is not just a third year CompSci module but also a lovingly produced and moving treatise that makes an ideal Xmas present for the sort of person who will eagerly anticipate the film version.

Every course has one book that the lecturer will go out of their way to emphasise is of life-threatening necessity. This usually involves waving around dog-eared first editions ("I think the latest is the fifth edition. I prefer the first myself but the fifth is good enough for you tossers.") stolen from the library years ago, occasionally using it to crack heads in the front row of the lecture theatre. You will note that over the course of the coming year, the lecturer will never again refer to it or be seen to use it at any point during the syllabus. Furthermore, the department noticeboard is festooned with dog eared scraps of stolen printout paper offering secondhand copies of said tome from second year students.

Something smells fishy here, and it isn't just the dancefloor at Pier Pressure. For a start, most of those secondhand copies will have had their pages used as an Andrex substitute (and then replaced). But more obviously, this essential work can only be a complete waste of money. Every degree course has one: the book you're ordered to purchase at gunpoint in week one that you still can't flog two days before your final exam. Even though it's "as new".

And sitting in pole position at the summit of this mountain of academic dross, I hereby award Drs Deer, Howie and Zussman the top prize for "An Introduction to the Rock Forming ZZzzz...

Sorry, I dropped off for a moment there. "...Rock Forming Minerals."

Deer, Howie and Zussman is the mighty work of utter tedium that the UWA geology department has been using to scare off potential graduates since its formation. This book stands tall in my recollection as the biggest waste of grant in my entire student career, and that's up against some pretty serious competition - including a Rendel girl. Words fail me when I try to come to terms with how supremely vital this book was to me during my two years spent staring at wet rocks. Every occasion that I turned to it for stimulating information and intriguing insight is eternally memorable, because there weren't any.

Go down to the secondhand bookshop and peruse a copy to obtain some idea of how cow-burningly awful this book is. You can probably still find my old copy if you search for long enough amidst the three bookshelves of used editions. The authors' names alone sound like a young debutante describing her two favourite suitors: "Dear, dear Howie and Zussman".

"An Introduction to the Rock Forming" <zonk>

Apologies again. "...Rock Forming Minerals" never got out of first edition, but it was reprinted 500 times to feed the armies of suckered geology undergrads buying what they were led to believe was the bible of igneous study. Ironically, it's rumoured that the initial print run thrown down in disgust by educated dinosaurs forms a thin sedimentary layer at the top of the Cretaceous strata. (This evidence is examined by Dr Robert Bakker in his forthcoming book, "The Dinosaur Stupor: how big lizards bored themselves to extinction".)

The book was written in the days long before computer typesetting, and possibly before Caxton. Every diagram appears to have been hand drawn by the authors using a fine fountain pen and a stained metal ruler. The font is unknown to Microsoft Office '97, but thought to be related to one of the earliest forms of written Latin. The text definitely is. At least, as far as I recall. The only time I ever read a line, I came to some weeks later in the coma ward at Bronglais. This book makes the Principal's opening address to new students seem like an urbane and witty after-dinner speech. Compared to reading the phonebook, it is only slightly more interesting than Smith-Smythe and a darn sight less so than G-H.

I don't know what became of Deer, Howie and Zussman. I fondly like to believe that their new found literary success brought them little cheer. Deer sued the other two for unpaid royalties; Howie bought a mansion in Lagos, where he endured a string of unsuccessful marriages; Zussman drank himself to death on Deer's royalties. Meanwhile, geology lecturers continue to stomp on the heads of unfortunate undergrads who still haven't bought a copy of DH&Z by mid-October.

Do not be discouraged. For every stinking corpse, there is one volume which can sit alongside your copy of "The Wasp Factory" and be recognised as a storming classic in its own right. For myself, I hold up "Software Engineering" by Ian Sommerville as an example of a textbook which is complete, readable, current, informative and remains fully relevant, and one day I hope to read it.

The author wishes to make it clear that, even though he hated DH&Z more than the practicals, he doesn't feel this was any justification for closing the entire department. Whoever made that decision should be buried under rock for millions of years until, compressed into coal, they may finally gain some material value.

Ade Rixon
12th October 1997