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Shelf Life

Confessions of a bibliocide

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I was a sickly, asthmatic child who nursed myself with stories. Though I of course had my favourites – Enid Blyton’s unkillable children who never ran out of breath – almost any book could thrill me. The weight of it, the scene on its cover, the few brief sentences that promised other worlds: at times it was enough to hold a book while I stared out the window at a day intended for play. If I had been told that I would one day be ripping covers off books and tearing out pages, I would probably have shaken my head with the same conviction with which people deny that under certain conditions they would commit murder.

Most people share this respect – or even reverence – for books. When you consider that around 180 million books are bought in the UK every year it is amazing how rare it is to see any without some obvious owner. Even when we don’t like a book, we still feel some responsibility towards it. We give it to someone else, donate it to charity or maybe try to sell it. Very few people just drop a book in a bin, unless they are angry with it or offended by its contents (though when my friend threw his copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest away in an airport, he said ‘it’s because of all those endnotes’). As for the idea of purposefully destroying a book, this is taboo. Burning books is something fascists do.

But while we like to think that books have a special status, the reality is that they are constantly being destroyed in large numbers. To some degree this is a necessity: one can imagine a Saramago-esque fable in which the rulers of a country decree that the life and health of books is as important as that of its citizens. People’s homes and libraries soon reach saturation. All available land becomes occupied by vast warehouses where groaning shelves stretch into apparent infinity.

The more we love a book, the more often we pick it up, either to re-read or just to flick through. But this love can’t help but be destructive: covers become worn, bindings loosen, moisture from our hands hastens their degradation (especially for any book not printed on acid-free paper). But unless a book is scarce, valuable or beloved, it is unlikely to be repaired. Like some faithful, aged hound, there comes a day when it seems a kindness (and if we’re honest, perhaps expedient) to gently dispose of it. This is the exception when it comes to our squeamishness about book disposal — we view such acts as a kind of euthanasia. In isolation, this is tolerable, but on a grander scale it becomes more problematic, as I found out when I started work in a charity bookshop.

To say that I had a slightly rose-tinted view of bookselling would be an understatement. I regarded bookshops as a kind of library where you could buy the stock. During my interview, when there was talk of ‘processing donations’ and ‘culling the shelves’, all I could think about was being in the company of so many books.

The first donation I received was a small Marks & Spencer’s bag containing The Lovely Bones, Enduring Love and The Da Vinci Code. My boss put the books on the counter and said, ‘Off you go.’ I dutifully picked them up to check their spines and pages. The only indication they had ever been read was a train ticket that fell out. After they had been priced, a larger donation came in: two boxes of old Penguin paperbacks. I pulled out a copy of Faulkner’s The Unvanquished. As I turned it in my hands one of its pages came loose. As I tried to replace it my boss reached for a white sack and said, ‘It’s too knackered.’ I looked at the orange bands of the cover and said, ‘But it’s Faulkner.’

‘That doesn’t matter,’ he said and dropped it in the sack. The next book – Sartre’s Iron in the Soul – had a large tear in its cover and also went in the bag. So did the worn copy of Winesburg, Ohio and the dog-eared copy of Nabokov’s Dozen on whose cover the bumbling-looking author was shown waving a butterfly net. About fifty paperbacks went in the white bags, almost of all of which were in good enough condition to be read. When I protested I was told that our shop needed to have high standards.

‘If people come in and see tatty books on the shelves,’ said my boss, ‘those are the kind they’ll donate.’

‘But these are great books. We can’t just get rid of them. Even if we can’t sell them, we could still give them away to schools, or hospitals, or I don’t know, prisons.’

‘Actually, those are the places that usually send books to us. And we’re not exactly throwing them away. They get recycled by the council. They even pay us a little. We can just put paperbacks in the sack. But we do have to do some work with the hardbacks.’

He picked up a battered hardback copy of Midnight’s Children, then, with several casual motions, tore its front and back cover off, in the same calm manner with which my biology teacher used to snap mice necks with a ruler. In each case, the act was devoid of malice, just something that had to be done.

I made no further protest. I thought my first day at work wasn’t the time to argue a point of principle. In fact, at the time I probably could not have satisfactorily explained why these books deserved to be saved. I could have said they were great literature; that they explored the complexities of life in ways that moved and fascinated me; that they had taught me things; that they had made me think. To lose even one copy of the book was to lose a chance that someone else would be similarly affected.

After my boss left I took some books from the bag. A few of these I put out for sale, hoping he wouldn’t notice; most, I gave away. The fact we were destroying so many books wasn’t exactly a secret — twice a week a man from the council dragged between ten and twenty sacks of books through the shop. This would usually provoke a customer into asking what was going to happen to these books, and they were usually perturbed by the answer.

But in both used and new bookselling, the destruction of books is commonplace. Once books are judged unsellable, they are either thrown away or recycled. With new books, the covers are often ‘stripped off’, so they can be returned to the publisher as evidence that the books have been rendered unsaleable. In 2009, which was the last time anyone seems to have counted, some 77 million books were pulped in the UK.

There is also the continuing influx of new titles. In 2013 the International Publishers Association estimated that the UK publishes more titles each year than any other country — some 184,000. No one even knows how many actual printed books that represents. But there is only so much space on our shelves. In order for some books to be saved, some must be destroyed. It is for this reason that legal deposit libraries, such as the British Library, are so important. They ensure that no book will ever be entirely lost. Hence the uproar when in August 2000 the British Library admitted to having disposed of 80,000 books in order to make space.

I ended up working in the shop for seven years — it became the setting for my first novel The Casualties. I never became entirely comfortable with getting rid of so many books, but I wasn’t able to save many of them. Ultimately, the ones I chose to rescue were picked on highly subjective grounds. One week I saved a history of horse contraception, an Alaskan cookbook (many of whose recipes require seal’s liver), a series of 1950s guides for new brides and a book on Scottish wildflowers between whose pages were pressed examples of every flower depicted.

I chose them because they were unusual, possibly scarce. Another person might have thought them tatty and outdated. They would have been put in the recycling sack with the Reader’s Digests, romance novels, outdated encyclopaedias, airport thrillers, mutilated copies of children’s stories, 1980s cookery books, ‘celebrity’ biographies and photo books of winsome cats and dogs. Another person would probably have done so without qualms. For them, it would not have seemed like even a small killing.

Nick Holdstock is the author of China’s Forgotten People, a non fiction book about Xinjiang, and a novel, The Casualties.

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