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17 January 2016

Books are not sacred objects

Every once in a while, I see something like this....

"They're actually throwing books out?!"

You can't avoid it, hanging around the bookternet....

"I don't get why would anyone cut up a book like that just for a craft project?!"

People love books, get attached to them....

"Why would they tear off the covers and toss them in a dumpster?!"

And no one wants to see their fav things mistreated....

"Can't you just donate them to a library or school?!"

Especially when it comes to beloved authors or subjects....

"You're removing it from the library... but what if someone wants to read it someday?!"

... sigh ...

Something that anyone who works with books learns sooner or later is:

Books are not sacred objects.

Oh, sure, some individual books might be considered sacred. Any illuminated manuscript or limited-run first edition of a classic becomes an object with special worth. And someone might have individual books that are sacred to them personally. A beloved childhood collection of fairy tales or a gift from a good friend. But each and every book in the world can not be considered a sacred object.

The ideas held within those books might be considered sacred. The very idea of "book" might be sacred. The general concept of an object that contains thoughts that can be passed from person to person, even across centuries and different languages and cultures -- that, surely, is sacred.


  • That pile of mass market paperbacks that's been taking up precious shelf space at the corner book store for the past year? 
  • The series that you're not even interested in but that your well-meaning grandmother continues to buy for you that are gathering dust in your closet? 
  • That outdated textbook in your college library's reference section? 
  • Those books from an author that was popular 2 years ago that are now only lingering, unread in the fiction section at your already over-packed public library?

Don't cry over those books. They might now be worth more as craft projects or recycled paper than they are as books.

The Book of Kells? Yeah, OK, that one might be sacred.

- - -

"But what about donation?" I can hear you ask. "Surely someone out there would be grateful for them. There are starving children in Africa... starving for books!"

And sometimes, yes, donation is an option. Many libraries and schools might be happy to accept donations of books, provided that they're (a) in good condition and (b) fill a hole in their existing collections. And even if they don't want to keep the books, they might have a way to sell them for money that can help with other needs.

However, when you're donating a book, you need to think about whether anyone really would be interested in reading it. You're obviously not -- so why are you getting rid of it? If you simply don't have room or didn't enjoy it, OK, cool. But if it's a medical reference from 2 decades ago? If it's an obscure vanity published collection of bad poetry? If it is literally falling apart? ... What makes you honestly think that any other person would truly be in need of that particular book?

If you're serious about donating books, check out
Better World Books

- - -

It's hard to get used to the idea that any given book might be unwanted, not needed, worthless. I know, I had the same problem once upon a time when I was but a little baby librarian.

It might help to try to separate the content of the books -- whatever story or information or history that can be read there -- from the physical items themselves. If the content is worth anything but the book itself is beat to bits or badly translated or whatever, you can probably find that same content in a better-condition binding or more accurate translation.

And if the content itself isn't worth anything? Yeah, that happens sometimes, too. Again with the outdated medical reference example -- that content is no longer worth consuming, and its container isn't precious in and of itself. Let it go.

- - -

Some of us who deeply appreciate books fear that potential-yet-improbable future of Fahrenheit 451, when all books are dangerous and the readers of the world must rescue them from the bonfires of intellectual oppression. I get that fear. It's a valid fear, given that such things have happened in real life in the past. Even in present-day America, some people still try to ban or censor books that contain concepts that don't neatly fit within their particular worldviews. So, yes, this is a problem that we have to be vigilant about. But it doesn't mean that every book is sacred.

I hope this all makes sense and doesn't just come across like the ramblings of a caffeine-deprived bitter old hen (because it might actually be that, but we'll keep that between you and me).

Thoughts? Have you ever had to struggle with this idea? Or do you entirely disagree? Talk to me.

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