I was hanging out in the hallway at the Nebula Awards weekend last Friday when I ran into my friend Rahul. He proceeded to completely floor me by mentioning that he throws books away when he finishes them.
“But you don’t literally throw them away, right?” I couldn’t help asking. “I mean, you don’t put them in the garbage, do you?”
“Actually,” he said, “I put them in the dumpster.”
After a few minutes of spluttering, I said, “I’m totally going to blog about this!” So here I am.
As appalled as I am by the idea of actually throwing books away (as opposed to giving them to Goodwill or selling them to the used bookstore), my constant struggle to stay within my allotted shelf space gives the idea a certain shine. Plus, there is no denying it’s easier to walk down to my garage and chuck some books in the dumpster than it is to make a trip to Goodwill. But really Rahul’s strategy highlights a key question:
Are books disposable objects? What value do they retain once we’ve read them? What value do they have if they sit on our shelves for years without ever being read? (My to-read shelves have expanded to encompass an entire tall bookshelf so I’m sure some of them will never be exposed to my eyeballs.)
I approach the ownership of books from a position of scarcity. I remember when I could only afford to buy a couple of (mass market paperback) books per year. This meant that my small personal library acquired an almost sacred feel to it, and I never got rid of any books, even ones that I really didn’t like. Even now, when I do sell books back to my local used bookstore, it’s not an activity without a certain element of pain (which also means I procrastinate about doing it). And I hardly ever remove an e-book from my Kindle and dread the day when I fill it up so I’ll be forced to curate my collection.
On the other hand, even while I adored my small personal library, I turned to the public library for the bulk of my reading. And heavy library usage does support the idea of books as disposable objects for the individual, if not for society. I kept my library books for two weeks or a month, and then the vast majority of them I never checked out again. Is Rahul’s practice of chucking his read books into the dumpster so much different, given that many libraries use donated books to raise funds through book sales instead of actually cataloguing and storing them? Sure, the library will receive fifty cents or a couple of dollars for that book donation, but not enough money to get anyone really excited.
So maybe books really are disposable objects. But I still can’t imagine throwing mine in the trash can; they have too much of an aura of magic and possibility for that. I’ve imbued these objects with so much meaning that I can’t bear to part with them, just as another person saves ticket stubs or theater programs. Except they’re not quite the same; books represent not only an experience I had in a past, but an experience I can choose to have again, albeit perhaps in an altered form since each reading of a book can expose new layers.
What do you think? Are books disposable? Do you throw books in the trash when you’re through with them? Should you start?