Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Burning Books

The New York Times on Sunday, June 3, ran a story in the National Report section that caught my eye. Entitled "A Requiem for Reading in a Smoldering Pyre of Books," it concerned two bookstore owners in Kansas City, Missouri, who resorted to burning books they had in storage because they got tired of dealing with the "Sisyphean" situation and did not know what else to do with them. The burning was meant to be as well a "cultural statement about the decline of literary reading in the United States." The two men had tried to give away books in bulk, without success. Mysteriously, the state correctional system refused to take donations of books. "When they donated books to a local fund-raising event, some well-meaning person bought up most of those books and left them" on the bookstore's doorstep. The dilemma the bookstore owners faced was that "books are just things, paper bricks of commerce taking up room. But they are also holy vessels, containing the written articulation of our experiences and dreams, allowing us to point to an arrangement of words and exclaim: 'Yes! That's it exactly!'" I'm sure every librarian has felt this tension when we weed our collections, whether at work or at home. Space is finite, and weeding is a necessary activity, but it is hard to throw books away. I think it's good that we agonize about getting rid of books. We shouldn't take it casually.


Betsy McKenzie said...

What a story, Marie! I have been amazed to find that one of my main functions as a librarian is to take the task of book disposal off the hands of the "lay" public. I have spent a surprising amount of my career tossing books. You are right -- it's a painful task and sometimes fraught with difficulty. One time, we discarded extra copies of books that had become out-of-date. Unfortunately, one of the discards was a donated copy from a prof! He was rightly incensed to find his donation in the trash! What a mess! We double-check for gift tags nowadays, and try to dispose of books in out-of-the-way places and odd times.

Sometimes, we can give books away to students (who, I am sure, will eventually have to toss them). And these days, my university is offering at least once a year to recycle them. If they can collect them through the year, I'll be very happy with that!

Marie S. Newman said...

I too have spent a lot of time recently throwing out books, and I hate it. We try to find good homes for books we are discarding, but it isn't easy. Sometimes I think that I didn't become a librarian to toss books, but it is part of the job.