Books Are Not Sacred

I tried to think of a very pithy title for this post but failed.  So, instead, I think I’ll just launch this idea into the air and see if anyone can shoot that clay pigeon down. 

Books are not sacred.

I love books.  I’m a professional librarian by trade, so each day I’m surrounded by them.  I order them, catalog them, surreptitiously read them, recommend them, shelve them, process them, and then, at the end of the library life-cycle, “de-process” them for removal.  At home, both my wife (who is also a librarian) and I read and discuss books.  We listen to them in our cars during our daily commutes and on road trips.  When we married our respective personal collections meshed to form a collective and diverse whole.  If I’m not reading or goofing off, I write.  In fact, I love books so much that I actually think I could become a professional author someday, writing books instead of cataloging them.  My opinion is worth exactly what you paid for it, but I tell you this to establish my credentials, to instill in you a sense that I might actually know a think or two about what I’m saying.

Books are not sacred.

When I tell you that books are not sacred, it is not the word of the atheist that has never graced the pew of a church or heard the bells of a cathedral, the call to prayer, or the chants of the cantors.  I’m a true believer in the power of words and reading.  I think that the illiteracy rate in this country is a bewildering crime against humanity.  I think that a free library is the key to good governance and a thriving democracy.  I have seen first hand the way that books and libraries change people’s lives.  Nevertheless, I still hold to this basic truth:

Books are not sacred.

In all the different libraries I have worked in over the past 14 years, we would often get people donating their cast-off books.  Some were great and useful and we were grateful for them.  Others…not so much.  They were yellowed, sometimes even moldy.  Some were in good shape and looked like they had never been opened…even though they were probably published in 1975.  We would get encyclopedia sets from the 1970s, our third copy of the complete run of National Geographic, and books on computer programming that detailed the techniques involved in the formation of a punch-card.  I once even came across an atlas from the 1960s with maps of the USSR and other nations that no longer exist and details on how we “might” just make it to the moon some bright day.  These were all items that, even if they were in good shape, simply were not of use.  They would never be checked out, would be rarely consulted, and take up much of the library’s very finite space that could be better used for something of more immediate need. 

I often joke that this represents a hitherto unknown library service: the assuagement of biblio-guilt.  The people who usually brought in the real stinkers, the moldy-dusty-yellow-smelly books, (if they stayed long enough to talk to us instead of just shoving them into the book-drop without so much as a note), often spoke of how much they respect and love books and how they couldn’t just throw them away.  So they would give them to us; and we, more often than not, would throw them away.  But at least the donor didn’t have that on their conscience, right?

Books are not sacred.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying that if it’s not new or current it has no value.  Not at all.  I very much understand that it is important to be able to hold and see relics of the past and to examine how previous generations viewed the world around them.   We shouldn’t forget the past, or else we’ll be doomed to repeat it.  However, this also doesn’t mean that every public library needs to have a complete run of the Encyclopaedia Britannica dating back to 1771.  Physics intervenes; finite space means you must have a clear mission and sense of purpose and collect accordingly.  The British Museum may need to have that old Britannica; your local public library probably doesn’t.  Each has its place and its mission and assigns different value to each work.

Books are not sacred.

In the pre-Gutenberg days people revered books due to their rarity as much as for their content.  These were hand-illuminated works of both art and literature in a not-so-compact package.  Many medieval libraries would literally chain them down to keep them from leaving.  Today we just issue notices and charge fines (if we even do that–but that’s another topic).  Because of the printing press they became less rare but precipitated a flourishing of literacy, the democratization of thought, and literally carried the weight of the Enlightenment that ushered in the modern age.  Not a bad feat for two boards, some cloth, and some sheets of flattened wood pulp. 

But now we have the “mass market”.  Books are cheaply produced (and getting cheaper, i.e. shoddier) and easily obtained.  I’m not going to touch the debate between independent booksellers and chain stores, but the fact remains that one way or another Aunt Lucy can get her latest Danielle Steel anytime she wants.  If not bought at a store (nearly any store, these days) then at her local library.  Most books are neither rare nor are they artfully made. 

Books are also not sacred.

Nevertheless, they are still loved.  People want to hold them in their hands and smell their pulpy pages (seriously…I’ve seen this first-hand).  The idea of book-burning is still anathema…even to this biblioatheist (I’ll get to that in a moment).  People simply cannot bear to part with them.  The idea that “print is dead” has come and gone and come back again, like many other sacred beings I can think of. 

Now that we are in the age of electronic information and of the e-book, the demise of print again seems imminent.  There seems to be very little middle ground when it comes to e-books; hated or loved, the bright future of publishing or the end of the written word.  As both a writer who wishes to be published and as a librarian who wants to make books available to as many people as freely as possible, I’m right in the middle of this perfect storm.  I look at all the blogs and comments and articles and once again come back to the fundamental truth that…

Books are not sacred.

You’ll notice that I keep saying that.  You’ll also notice that I never said that words were not sacred.  What makes books special, what has always made books special, is not the paper or the binding or the ink…it is the words inside them.  The ideas that they represent.  The stories that they tell.  This is why the rumors of the death of print have always been exaggerated.  Contrary to what some believe, the medium is not the message. 

This is why book-burning is still anathema to me.  It is not merely the destruction of paper and ink; it is a symbolic destruction of the very real ideas held within.  It is not discarding moldy paper; it is intellectual genocide.  One is the destruction of the medium; the other is the destruction of the message. 

With the marvels of mass media production, if you throw away that old paperback, you have not destroyed it.  The book is only a symbol of what is actually cherished. The ideas and characters live on; not only in your memory but they can literally probably be found somewhere else (in a library, in a used bookstore, online, etc.). 

This is why I’m not terribly worried about the death of print in the nascent e-book age.  Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t rushed out to by a Kindle or a Nook and I haven’t donated my personal library to charity just yet…in fact, it grows every week.  This isn’t because I think my books are sacred; it’s just that it’s far too early and the e-book still too ethereal to take that step just yet.  Questions regarding the permanence of the data and of the meaning of ownership and access still have not been answered to my satisfaction.  If content providers can yank my access at the drop of a hat, then I don’t truly own the book, do I?  At least with a paperback I can put it in my pocket and know that it’s mine (at least until the acid from my grubby little fingers and the rays of the “evil orb” eventually burn the pages golden). 

Books are not sacred.

They don’t need to be saved.  Until e-publishing gets its proverbial shite together, books are doing fine.  Worry more about the ephemeral nature of the words we’re collecting online.  We marvel at how much information is available on the Internet today.  Marvel, too, at the amount of information that has probably been lost over the years.  Whether we read from pages, papyrus, or an iPad, we are still reading.  The words, the ideas, the stories, and the dreams continue to thrive and inspire.  Instead of desperately clinging to that which was out of fear, let’s try to make the future better and allow the past to take care of itself. 

One final bit of housecleaning:  there are better ways to dispose of books we don’t need than filling the landfills.  Donate them to libraries.  Give them to shelters or hospitals. Sell them to used bookstores. Give them to friends and neighbors.  Set up book exchanges.  All I ask is that you give thought to whether or not whoever you give your old books to can actually put them to good use before you give them away.  There are also some recycling programs available for old books.   And if they are moldy-dusty-yellow-smelly books…you can throw them away.  I absolve you.

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About Shedrick

I am a professional librarian and a part-time writer that's working to do that the other way around. I currently live in North Texas in the lovely city of Denton (“The Home of Happiness“) with my lovely wife and the obligatory demon-spawn cats. When not writing, gaming, or watching cheezy kung-fu flicks, I can sometimes be found in a pub (or the American equivalent) enjoying a fine brew.
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One Response to Books Are Not Sacred

  1. Shedrick says:

    Came across this article this morning that ties into one of the themes to my post…thought it may be of interest…

    http://reason.com/archives/2010/03/23/dont-fear-the-e-reader

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