Throwing out thousands of books in three libraries over the past nine years has cured me of bibliophilia, though nothing on this side of mortality can ever release me from my thralldom to stories, to the written word, to the English language in all its bastardized brilliance.
What I’m done with is the fetishization of the codex, with books for books’ sake. I see no point in stockpiling stories that no longer speak to anyone, scientific knowledge decades out of date, speculations about the future that never came to pass, information shaped blithely by the racism and sexism of its time. But more than anything else, I’m finished with the idea that books just by virtue of their existence are precious things that can never outlive their usefulness.
The visceral response some of us have against a threat to books is rooted deep within us. When I was a child, if my mother saw me writing in a book or treating it carelessly, she would scold, “Never do that to a book! Books are our friends!” Jewish custom dictates that if a prayer book falls to the floor, that the book be picked up and kissed, and I have seen even not-particularly-observant Jews follow this tradition. Our schools and libraries are full of signs and posters trumpeting the value of books. Even people who never read decorate their homes with books. The less they like to read, the likelier that the books will be handsome leather-bound sets. (This seems as silly to me as if I were to decorate my house with expensive golf clubs, but then again, how could I? The place is too full of books.) Books, even if we don’t read them, deserve respect, love, even. Only an ignorant thug would destroy a book, and throughout history, many dangerous, violent people have destroyed many books before moving on to human targets. But it does not follow that there is never a good reason to get rid of a book.
People who protest to me and other librarians about the abomination of libraries throwing out books imagine themselves as heroes in a story about book burning, maybe Fahrenheit 451, or the destruction of the library of Alexandria. Maybe they are the monks saving civilization from the barbarian hordes, and I the Visigoth throwing out a third copy of The Thorn Birds. Whenever teachers or students in my current school library see the withdrawn volumes filling up a few recycling bins, some of them ask me, in tones of outrage, what they believe is a rhetorical question: How can you, a librarian, possibly throw out books? It takes a long argument to explain that it is precisely because I am a librarian that I throw out books. A librarian throws out books because no one else dares to do it. And it must be done.
Realizing that people object so strongly to throwing out books, I began to save a few of the most egregious examples to show people who got upset. The library owned a book entitled Careers for Women that included secretary, piano teacher and flight attendant, but strangely enough, not public school teacher, let alone financial analyst specializing in mergers and acquisitions. An anthropology book called The Races of Man that I wish I had saved (but that my assistant threw out) explained, scientifically of course, why some races were more evolved than others. A book originally published in the 19th century and gamely reprinted in the 1920s, defended the early European settlers of North America, downplaying their casual brutality towards the Indians by recasting their actions in light of their Christian intentions. Most of the discards were old, but some weren’t: I’d put aside two books from the late 1990s elucidating the scourge of satanic ritual abuse and how students could protect themselves and their communities against it. These were the thin hardcovers you probably remember from your own middle-school library, the ones designed for student reports, with lots of pictures and quotations from experts. While well-researched and decently written, these books had the rather serious drawback of shedding light on a crime that has since been proven not to exist, although not before a number of innocent people were thrown into prison for committing it.
I lay a few of these out on the circulation desk for the incensed to examine. I know that I have to defend my destruction of school property, but I never expected to have the same argument, almost verbatim, every time I weeded. “Do you think these books should be on the shelf in a school library?” Long silences ensue, while the bibliophiles rethink their arguments. Clearly, these books don’t belong on the shelves, but still, still you can’t throw out books!
“These books have historical value, then,” is the next argument. “We should keep the books, but flag them somehow so that kids know that these books are just there to demonstrate certain ideas from the past.”
“We don’t teach historiography in our curriculum,” I reply. “No high school does.” Besides, how could I ever make it clear to students that this book about African tribes is valid, well-researched and up-to-date, while this one, by the wife of a missionary who painted portraits of the interesting natives in their fascinating, though indecent, native costumes, is condescending, dated and inaccurate? Am I supposed to put a warning sticker on it?
Student bibliophiles have lost interest and given up by this point, but teachers persist. “You shouldn’t throw them out, though! There are schools that don’t have any books in their libraries! Libraries whose budgets have been cut! Can’t you donate them to Paterson?” Poor Paterson. This argument, to me, smacks of a patronizing classism, though kindly meant. We’ve already established that these books could do more harm than good and do not merit inclusion in the collection of our very well-off school’s library. But give them to those poor Paterson kids, for whom the books would be that much worse for not having anything more recent on the shelf to compare them to.
“Trust me, ” I tell them, “No one wants these books.”
The parting plea is invariably that I should sell them on eBay and get money for the school to buy new books. I wonder how much of a market people think there is for a book that we’ve already agreed cannot even be given away as a charitable gesture, though I was forced to reconsider when I saw both students and adults picking these absolutely worthless books out of the recycling and taking them home.
“What are you going to do with those?” I asked a boy who I know for a fact never reads under any circumstances.
“You’re throwing them out, right?”
“So it doesn’t matter what I’m going to do with them, does it?” He looked nervous. He didn’t want to get in trouble.
“Not really. I’m just curious.”
“I’m going to burn them.”
Well, that made sense. Many teenage boys are pyromaniacs, and burning books probably adds the wild anarchic thrill of the forbidden. But I could make no sense of what the middle-aged former lawyer who substitute teaches at my school intended to do with the dozens he rescued from the bin.
“What are you going to do with those?” I asked him. I thought he’d probably outgrown his pyromaniac phase.
“I’m going to add them to my shelves in the basement!” he responded happily.
“What is your wife going to say when she sees you carrying two dozen books that no one in their right mind would want into the house?”
He winked. “She’ll never know. She refuses to go down there.”
My sympathies were entirely with Mrs. Former-Lawyer-Substitute-Teacher.
So who loves books more—the substitute teacher or me? To me, what matters about a book is the contents. To him, what matters is the book. He thinks I’m committing a sacrilege against civilization by discarding inaccurate, outdated books. I think he’s committing an act of monumental inconsideration to his heirs, who will someday have to go through all those basement books that no one ever sees. What is it about a book that makes it a sacred object and not just an information-delivery system?
Every librarian has had frustrating phone calls from community members cleaning out their attics or basements and generously offering the library their mildewed, water-damaged, dusty or disintegrating books, often vast mass-market paperback collections from the 60s and 70s, long-forgotten titles printed on the cheapest kind of paper. Or 85 years of National Geographic. They want to know where to drop off books and magazines to donate them to the library. Many are shocked and offended to learn that both public and school libraries generally do not accept donations of books that are more than two or three years old. Don’t we want their grandmother’s’ perfectly good collection of 40-year-old beach reads? What do I expect them to do with these books—throw them out? If they haven’t given up yet, they ask me if anyone in Paterson wants them. Poor Paterson. To get someone off the phone, I will suggest a hospital or a nursing home, but I’m sure there’s someone answering those phones whose job it is to tell them to call the library. It’s an odd sort of charitable impulse that leads a person to a sense of outrage that no one wants something that has been sitting, unwanted, in their parents’ basement for decades. Libraries are Dickensian orphans, apparently, and should be grateful for any little sip of gruel offered out of the goodness of a stranger’s heart, and books are valuable because they are books, not because of anything in them, or of any alchemy that happens when the mind of a gifted writer touches the mind of an engaged reader.
The indignant bibliophiles value books not too much, but too little. By lumping all books together as sacred objects that can never outlive their usefulness, no matter how useless, they denigrate the power of books that can ignite a firestorm in a reader’s intellect, or tear a reader’s soul with pathos or romance. If your mom’s disintegrating mass-market copy of Valley of the Dolls is worthy of real-estate on the shelves of the public library forever just because it was once printed on paper and bound into a codex, then how can The Origin of Species or Anna Karenina claim any special merit? Those are books, too.
Civilization is in a fraught historical moment in our relationship with our books. As reading declines in each successive generation, and as content moves increasingly into digital form, we venerate the object of the book more. A guaranteed formula for a best-selling book in almost any genre, and this has been true since the first e-readers began to appear, is a book about a special, magical, ancient or secret manuscript or scroll discovered and deciphered by a modern character who alone knows its true value. As we value and need books less for what they really are, we fetishize their form even more.
Perhaps you have even heard of a fairly new craft technique called altered books, in which the artist takes an old hardcover book, and through the use of cutting, tearing, painting, gluing and other mixed-media techniques, changes it to make something else: a purse, a hidden box, a greeting card, a picture frame. You know, something useful.
I have to acknowledge, though, that my irritation at the bibliophiles, like most resentments, stems from consciousness of an identical shortcoming. My husband and I and our two children own several thousand books, the collateral damage of the five combined masters degrees my husband and I possess (did I mention that he is an English teacher?), the beautiful collection of children’s books for our tween and teen, who have now outgrown the gorgeous picture books lovingly selected for them by friends and relatives and their adoring parents, my old tendency to buy at garage sales any book whose title or author I had heard of, and, well, our love of books. Having weeded three libraries, I turn now to our own, where I can cheerfully chuck books that are falling apart, dated or irrelevant to our current interests, but where I can never decide which of the four copies of Hamlet to toss, since each of them has either his notes or mine in them (why four? Undergrad and graduate, naturally. You don’t think we thought the same things about Hamlet each time we read it, do you?). Books commandeer every room, every surface. Yes, the kitchen. Yes, the bathrooms. Yes, the laundry room. Sometimes, I wish I could hire a librarian to come over here and weed this house. She’d know exactly what to do.