It happens every year. I spend summers in a tiny New Hampshire hamlet that enjoys, in addition to magnificent scenery, a very respectable if small public library. Each July, the library holds its annual book sale to raise funds for the upcoming year. The books on offering range from pulp paperbacks to genuine gems (this year I snagged a wonderful illustrated edition of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style) and everything, from treasures to trash, is priced to sell. Sell, they do, in reasonable quantities but inevitably many books remain unpurchased. And the library staff, board members and volunteers have to face the annual conundrum: what to do with the leftover books.
The solution would seem obvious: donate them. Wouldn’t other libraries, schools, nursing homes, et cetera, be thrilled to receive such a donation? The sad answer is no. Our librarian has tried to persuade every group she can think of to take possession of the books. Even some of the books! Nobody wants them. Perhaps the problem is that so many other local libraries face the same dilemma and try the same forms of outreach. Perhaps there are simply too many books, stored in attics and crowding bookshelves, books that owners, especially as they grow older and more interested in downsizing, are eager to pass on. Perhaps devices like Kindle are slowly making paper and ink obsolete. Whatever the reason, each book sale concludes with boxes upon boxes of unsold and unwanted tomes and the library must get rid of with them.
Up to now, the painful procedure has been to take the boxes of books to the dump. Everybody hates it. The whole notion of books as rubbish offends the deepest sensibilities of anyone who feels that books might be our most profoundly human achievement. Throwing books away is literally gut-wrenching. Then, this year, in desperation for an alternative, someone came up with a provocative notion.
The idea is this: Sometime in the fall, build a bonfire and invite the community. Have someone talk about the preciousness of books and the value of the free and full expression of ideas. Then have people pick, from those that need to be discarded, books toss onto the flames. Perhaps somebody would feel moved to kiss a book goodbye or say a sentence or two about a favorite passage. Perhaps the event would unfold in reverent silence. Maybe, as happens with some funerals (like those I remember from in the South), there would be lots of food and laughter would mingle with the tears.
And perhaps it would be a disaster.
Book burning has a long and malevolent history. Book burning is synonymous with thought control and oppression. In the ‘right’ — that would be ‘wrong’ — hands, burning a book means murdering an idea. Would such an occasion — burning a book in an attempt to honor it — in fact lead to de facto censorship: This book deserves to be burned? Is taking books to the dump a more ‘humanistic’ method of disposing of them?
Do you have a better idea?