A Writer's ReferenceIn our modern world of the internet, there is always a decision process involved in purchasing a "reference" book. For example, I have given away all my dictionaries. I hadn't used them in years - the web gave me quick answers from multiple sources. I grew up with a full set of Britannica Encyclopedia in the house - but now that I'm on my own I don't own any encyclopedias. The web provides that information in a far more accurate manner. With the online sources, you don't have to worry if the information about Ghana is still accurate, for example. My birding books were great - but with online birding sites I can see videos of the birds in motion, and hear audio files of their song.
So with that all being said, I understand why people might have mixed feelings about a book like A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker. It does not contain anything "special". It tells you how to use commas. It explains how to format documents for 2009 MLA format and 2010 APA. It helps you learn how to get subjects and verbs to agree. I'm sure most of us could Google a few of these topics and land on pages that help us step by step through the information, for free. So why pay a fairly high price for commonly found information where half of it will go out of date in a few years?
I suppose one answer is that our English courses in college require us to have it :) Do they get some sort of kick backs or bonuses from publishers for pushing certain books? If it's a student's responsibility to know how to format their paper using 2009 MLA format, should the instructor really care if the information comes from a printed book or from a trustworthy website? In either case they're just going to say "make sure your website reference looks like this: xx". The same is true for comma usage. If someone wants to use commas properly, they don't need this specific book in order to do that. They just need any website that steps them through the well documented proper usage of commas in American English.
That all being said, I did find having A Writer's Reference on my desk to be really useful. If I was working on a paper, I didn't need to dig through web bookmarks and track down specific answers to my questions. I just flipped open the book to the tabbed page and it was right there. If I was off with my laptop in a place without internet access (and yes, scary to imagine, they do still exist) I could work on my papers without any problem, with my book at my side, helping me tune and polish the works until they were just right.
I am generally in favor of "less clutter". I would love to have ebook versions of all of my very thick computer books, for example. There's no need for an entire shelf to be taken up by "SQL Server 7" and "ASP 3.0" and "MySQL 5.0" and so on, which I reference rarely but definitely need to have. It would be SO much better if those types of references could be in ebook format, sitting on my computer desktop, always ready but not taking up physical desk / shelf space. So I do think that having A Writer's Reference as an ebook that sits on my desktop of my main machine and my laptop could be a useful compromise. That way I know the information is reliable, it's well laid out, it's at my fingertips even when there's no internet around, and it's searchable. I don't think I need a "physical version" on my desk. But I do think having this "collection of information" all organized is of value.
So to summarize, yes you could "build" this book in essence by creating a large set of bookmarks in your web browser and popping between them as you needed to find information. But you could say that about ANY topic. Why have a book on Windows Server 2003 by your desk - you can just search the internet for your answers. The reason you DO keep those sorts of critical books around is that often it is much faster and easier to grab the book, turn to the page and be done with it. Especially in cases where the internet is down or iffy and something MUST be done right now, you want to ensure you have what you need right there. So I do see the value in having the physical book and I do own one myself. I think in a few years though I will try to get my hands on an ebook only version, as long as I can have copies on each of the machines I use, for even easier access and searching functionality to the material.
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