Requiem for a Dumpster Full of Books

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Lance Morrow headlined “Requiem for a Dumpster Full of Books”:

The dumpster behind the arts center in our upstate New York village is filled to the brim with discarded books—thousands of volumes. The mass grave is an unsettling sight to someone who was brought up in the worship of books.

The dumpster out back seems at odds with the sign in front of the arts center, which proclaims its annual “Festival of Books”: “More than 15,000 affordable, gently used books” for sale, all of them donated by locals. The thousands of volumes in the dumpster are the cull—the ones judged too damaged to be saleable.

Plenty of freshly published books are trashy, of course, but it’s somehow unbearable to see books in the trash. Book people in their reverence hold that to destroy books amounts to sacrilege and profanation. We are Old Believers in the cult of print. We accumulate scores and hundreds of books on our shelves. When the shelves are full and sagging, we build more. Books are friends, oracles, household gods, characters in the ongoing drama of our minds. If we own a book we haven’t read, we savor the knowledge that it’s there on the shelf, waiting—like money in the bank.

If you are a writer, you enjoy the intellectual opulence of knowing that a book you read in, say, 1991 might recall itself to you years later when you remember a quote that you want to cite (it’s somewhere around page 110, toward the top of a left-hand page). You scan the shelves and find the volume, which has waited all this time for your return. And there it is, on page 113—a bright thought from the living mind of someone who died 50 years before you were born.

There’s theology in this. Libricide is Satan’s work: We think of the Nazis’ ritual burning of “un-German” books in cities all over the Reich in May 1933. It is true that certain books may also be Satan’s work. Think of “Mein Kampf” or “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” When the discussion degenerates into cultural politics, you get people claiming that “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Catcher in the Rye” are evil.

Is book worship a dead religion? Not at all. It’s also true that the book dumping at my village’s Festival of Books reflected nothing more sinister than a fact in the 21st century life of book ownership: There aren’t enough shelves. The Festival of Books offered donors a virtuous solution to the problem of what to do with books they could not care for anymore: Donate them for resale. The books would find foster homes. Only true book lovers buy used books.

Our sons and daughters don’t want our discards. They live in small apartments. They move from city to city, and books are heavy. I own thousands of books. What will become of them? I try not to buy any more, except for my Kindle. I carry almost 700 books on the device; it fits in my jacket pocket. I can dip into an immense variety of writings while I sit in doctors’ waiting rooms to have my mortality poked and tended. My elder son in Australia, a fanatic in the old religion, has a big library of his own, and he mocks my Kindle as a blasphemous innovation.

But the libraries of the world are being rapidly digitized anyway—transformed out of their obsolete life-form and reconstituted in a new one: weightless, recondite, abstract, available in infinite electronic proliferation. Printed books started out centuries ago as sacred objects, hieratic, full of secrets and mysteries. Can anything duplicable by the click of a mouse be numinous? The old specimens, remnants of Gutenberg, with their fading type on crumbling paper, with their shabby bindings now unglued, become like the 18th- and 19th-century bones that lie in the Presbyterians’ churchyard cemetery across the road from the arts center.

The casting of books into dumpsters is a trivial episode in the 21st century’s long drama—the repudiation of the physical world in favor of the floating world of the screens. The magic of books is that they snatch ideas and images out of the intellectual and spiritual air, out of personal memory and the traditions of peoples, out of the learning of centuries, the great human inventory—and codify them in written and printed language, as books to be held in the hands and absorbed in the mind. The 21st century’s technology also snatches ideas and images out of the air. The new way alters the metaphysics of information in ways that we have barely begun to understand.

Friends sorted through the dumpster books the other day and, out of that literate goo, rescued presentable editions of Shakespeare and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I salvaged a few myself. I like to think that when the world’s electricity winks out and all the screens are dark and dead and useless, perhaps those books that we rescued will be the only ones left on earth. A wandering tribe of survivors will come upon those precious things and (if anyone still knows how to read) will be astonished by the Highland romances of Sir Walter Scott. Or maybe, all unknowing, they’ll burn them to keep warm.

Lance Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “The Noise of Typewriters: Remembering Journalism.”

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