Reading > books.
so, a lot of people on the internet get really mad about stuff made from books — hollowed-out book boxes, sculptures carved from books, mazes with walls built of books, etc.
I’ve talked a bit about fetishisation of books before, and how I think it often has less to do with a love of reading than with conspicuous consumption and the creation of a marketable bookish identity. (1, 2; see also ardhra, tojoursgai, capybaracommando on this.) it makes me uncomfortable when the book as an object of desire completely overshadows the book as, you know, a thing that you read. plus it’s boring. But I think both Stuff Made Of Books and Anti-Stuff Made Of Books are tied up in that fetishisation.
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with liking books as physical objects. I love books on a few different levels as well. I remember when I was a young teen my brother and I very seriously discussed how we couldn’t bear to damage or destroy books, that our will failed at the thought of it. I grew up in a very bookish environment. My family home has several thousand books and I’ve had a library card since I was two.
my family’s book collection is also very haphazard and kooky. It’s mainly op shop books, books from the remainder pile, ex-library books, stuff like that. Teach Yourself Finnish, Simple Upholstery, a biography of Lenin’s daughters, nineteenth-century small business marketing tips. They’re very big on finding the interest in overly-specific or outdated books. it’s about never rejecting any knowledge you have access to, following any weird path that’s interesting, rather than building a program of study and following it carefully. basically, growing up in my family home was like getting sucked into clicking through to seven thousand Wikipedia articles. that kind of environment is probably bad for your ability to sit down and write a thesis but I think it’s very, very good for your general knowledge; also for your ability to piece together your own understanding of the world from fragments, like a historian.
so I may as well have been purpose-built from birth to be as strongly opposed to ever destroying books as possible. almost any book has some value, even if it’s just as an example of how not to do things.
Having said that…I volunteer at a lefty bookshop that sells both second-hand and new books. The second-hand section is stocked entirely by donations, and of course we never turn a donation away. (I feel like that’s part of the unspoken contract of accepting donations — you have to take them off someone’s hands, you can’t make more work for them after they’ve already schlepped the stuff all the way to you. And books are heavy.)
We get a lot of really awesome books. A lot of classics, a lot of things I’ve never heard of before that are incredible. We also get a lot of books like “Proceedings of the Australian Labor Party Annual Conference, 1986” and “User’s Manual for Corel Draw 1.0” and “South-East Asia on a Shoestring (1972 Edition)” and “The Really Easy Guide To The Internet For Australia And New Zealand” and really terrible self-published fiction. I’m sure someone, somewhere would find them interesting. But the possibility of such a person wandering into the shop and finding that book is vanishingly small.
We sell them for a dollar, or for ten for a dollar, or give them away. But ultimately, we have to throw out a lot of books. Just chuck ‘em in the recycle bin. If that appalls you, I invite you to fill your space with increasingly out-of-date conference proceedings and law textbooks.
Has anyone read Jorge Luis Borges’ short story/essay The Library of Babel? It’s about a library that contains all possible books of a particular length. Sounds great, until you realise that “a library containing all possible books arranged at random is equivalent (as a source of information) to a library containing zero books”. Your chances of finding a book that is even intelligible are very slim. Your chance of finding the book you want is near enough to 1/infinity. I think about the Library of Babel a lot when I’m shelving donated books.
Archiving is also about throwing things away. If you keep everything then you can’t find anything. Your brain can’t remember everything. External storage of knowledge (like books, like digital archives) can certainly expand upon your own memory, but it’s not infinite either.
I don’t think craft with old books is interesting or neat. It depresses me, because books are for reading, and book craft is the ultimate in valuing the aesthetic appeal of The Book over its content. But the books that end up in those projects are almost always either unreadable or readily replaced and don’t need your cries of “blasphemy!”. use them as insulation or fire-starters or something, I don’t care.
A book is only worth something if it’s read. Without a reader, it’s just taking up space. You throw out old newspapers; you delete irrelevant text files; you throw out books nobody wants to read.