I love books, absolutely love books. With that truth as constant as my heartbeat, I find it very difficult to conceive of getting rid of books – let alone actually doing so.
I remember, when I was a little girl, my father coming home regularly with boxes of books. At that time, due to the political situation in Egypt, many people were leaving the country, and my father would rescue their abandoned books and give them a home in our own house. Books, he taught me, are treasures.
Of course, we grew up in Alexandria, home of the famous library that was designed to collect all the world’s knowledge, but burned to the ground in 48 BC, destroying forever 400,000 precious books (see my article ‘The roots of a bibliophile: The Ancient Library of Alexandria’). Whenever we passed the site of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, we were sobered by the thought of that great fire consuming so many priceless books.
The destruction of books on a mass scale is distressing for bibliophiles. (The Nazi book burning is the most obvious example.) But even on a book-by-book basis, destroying a book can feel wrong. Say you have spilled tea on a book. Do you throw it away – can you bear to?
Do you remember the days when you took a much-thumbed tome that was falling apart not to the recycling centre but to a book binder to be restored? How far we have come from those times. Nowadays, we live in a culture of consumption in which no object is treasured as it once was. A thick paperback novel can be purchased for the price of a cup of coffee; it is consumed and then, often, disposed of: thrown in the bin, left on a park bench, donated to a charity shop.
The Guardian newspaper in the UK recently reported on ‘the books no one wants any more’. The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey are books donated so frequently to charity shops that they simply can’t sell all the stock. The hotel chain Travelodge provided data on the books left in their hotel rooms over the course of a year; Fifty Shades Freed topped the list, with 1,209 abandoned copies, followed by two other erotic romances, and then Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. The most hyped books, the books with massive marketing campaigns that attempt to suggest you must read this book or you’re missing out are the ones that are most discarded – not valued, not treasured.
A couple of weeks ago a reader commented on one of my blog posts that advertising a book as a bestseller or by a bestselling author can actually make it less, not more, appealing. I found that really interesting, and it made me look at my bookshelves and consider how many of the books I treasure are books that have been hyped. The answer: very few.
I buy books that I am sure I will love – and therefore will keep. Before purchasing, I carefully read the book blurb; I read the first page or two; I even read the author’s bio, and sometimes I visit their website and learn about them as well. I do this so that I am assured a satisfying reading experience, of course, and to ensure I am not wasting money on a book I won’t enjoy. But I think the deeper-seated reason for my careful approach to book-buying comes down to the fact that I always intend to keep a book that I buy. It’s a thing of beauty, a precious object. I don’t just love the story and the characters and the poetry of the words; I love the smell of the ink, the weight of the work in my hand, the rustle and texture of the pages.
Do you love books in this way too? Does it break your heart to throw away a book? Do you feel an ache when you donate a book to charity? Can you bear to abandon a book? Have you ever bought a book and regretted it, because you didn’t enjoy it but struggled to let it go simply because it was a book? Does the story of unloved books sadden you?
I would love to hear your thoughts.