Saturday, October 12, 2013

should books be destroyed?

Low-cost mass production seems to diminish our sense of the sacredness of things, of food, of books, even of the Bible. Half a dozen years ago, I had the privilege of being at a conference with practicing Muslims. The reverence with which they handled their beautifully ornamented and scripted Ku'ran made me guiltily aware of my own dog-eared, written-in paperback Bible places casually on the floor beside my chair. As a Catholic, I am glad the days of chained Bibles are long gone and that we have easy access to the word of God. But perhaps I have become too familiar in my treatment of it; maybe I should kiss the Bible after reading it. Now, too, the thick leather-bound daily missals with gilt-edged onionskin pages, which some Catholics owned and used at mass, have given way to seasonal missalettes. Found in the pews of most parish churches, they are available to all. But they are paper-covered, printed on cheap gray stock--disposable. I am sure they are simply thrown away when outdated, or recycled, like newspapers and magazines.
Still, although I may have lost a sense of reverence for the sacred books themselves, the same sacramental principle that finds God in all things has impelled me to explore a spirituality of reading in different kinds of books, not just explicitly spiritual ones. Because in them, and especially in good novels, I find the astonishing richness of God's world--human, animate, inanimate--celebrated in all its haeccitas, its "thisness" (just the opposite of the mass-produced), as Duns Scotus named it.

--from Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading by Nancy Malone

Malone, who is a retired nun (can one be? any more than one can be a retired teacher or preacher?), uses the example of the novels of Patrick O'Brian to explain what she means, the ever-opening world the Aubrey/Maturin adventures invite her to live in, calling his gift of giving words flesh a "marvelous alchemy. Or better, a transubstantiation, a sacrament." And she is right. But for me the more important question is one that arises in that final paragraph above. Are we right to destroy books when they've outlived their usefulness?

Having worked in bookstores for a long while, I'm familiar with the common practice, dictated by the publishers, the "owners" of the books, of ripping off the front covers of mass market paperbacks for reimbursement and recycling the rest (by federal law a book can't be sold without its cover, not even as a used book). We do the same with trade paperbacks and hardcovers that are judged to have outlived their shelflife: they are returned to the publisher for reimbursement and destruction, sometimes by pulping, sometimes by incineration. I understand and somewhat approve the economics of this practice. It makes sense.

But there remains a lingering impulse that books, once having taken form, represent a world and the hard work of someone whose existence might otherwise be passed by. Shouldn't there be some sense of mourning at the destruction of these testaments to a writer's time and effort?

However, the corollary question is, Should we save all books? Do we restrict eternal life only for religious books like the Bible and the Q'uran? What about compendiums of Buddhist or Jainist wisdom? Or books that are "like" bibles, like the AA's Big Book?

And if we salvage books of ancient wisdom, what about more recent books of wisdom? Do we keep copies of The Prince in perpetuity? What about The Rights of Man? Nixon's Six Crises? The latest Rush Limbaugh?

And that's not to take into account classics like Huckleberry Finn, Walden, Ulysses? And once we hold up Beloved as a contemporary classic, does that mean we also keep every copy of every book Toni Morrison will ever write? The Bonfire of the Vanities was Tom Wolfe's attempt to breathe new life into contemporary literature, and while I don't think he quite managed it, it's an ambitious try. Does anyone know what I Am Charlotte Simmons is?

Maybe what Malone calls a good book's "haeccitas, its 'thisness,'" is a more reliable indicator. That certainly cuts a lot of books out it would seem: Lord of the Rings over the Inheritance Cycle; O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series over Forester's Horatio Hornblower; John Le Carre over Eric von Lustbader. But each of those books will have its defenders. Who gets to choose? And what do we do with someone like the late Tom Clancy whose novels certainly are precise and technically intricate and place you in a world most of us aren't privy to, but whose characters navigating that world are, at best, paper thin?

Maybe this is just a long argument to keep the status quo. After all, it's not as if anything could change even if all readers somehow got together and decided never to get rid of any of their books no matter how worn and tattered they become. I have several copies that long ago lost their back covers or their pages have slipped loose of the binding or a dog has gotten hold of it and ripped off part of its cover and spine. I'm uncertain exactly why, but I keep them. But I suspect that this is hoarder behavior and advise against it.

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