Closing a Chapter By Recycling Your Books
Like many people, I’ve decided to downsize and divest myself of things I no longer need. Getting rid of outworn toasters or old clothes wasn’t hard. But something else was a more difficult cord to cut: my hundreds of books, accumulated over the decades.
There’s something sacrosanct about books. They have meaning between reader and author that is personal, a connection of two minds. Your favorite book is a treasured friend. A personal library is a reflection of who you are. I’ve been buying books since childhood and kept most of them, crating them in boxes with each subsequent move from my parents’ house to several apartments to my own house.
There’s another fact about books that can’t be avoided: they take up a lot of space. Public libraries around the world thin out their massive collections every now and then. I had to face reality. There was no point in hanging onto books I would never read again. I knew I could trade in a few volumes at my neighborhood bookstore. Others would be donated to Open Books, that wonderful Chicago institution which supports literacy programs across the city. Maybe it wasn’t that hard to get rid of some of my books—or so it seemed.
There were volumes that I just couldn't donate. They were unreadable. Not because poor literary quality. Rather, it was their condition. Books are subject to the same slings and arrows of any other aging physical object. Decades-old pages yellowed and crumbled to the touch. Bindings made of glue cracked open, unable to hold the contents together. Other volumes were impenetrable hulks, the waterlogged victims of a basement flood. To be blunt, these books had outlived their natural lives. It was time for them to go. I couldn’t justify keeping a decrepit copy of Les Misérables or Catch-22 out of pure sentiment.
To any bibliophile, consigning a book to the dumpster doesn’t just feel like a terrible literary crime. It’s more like shooting Old Yeller. But no bookstore nor charity could use these decomposing volumes. Yet I just could not throw them away. My old books deserved a kinder fate than rotting in some anonymous waste dump. Fortunately, there was a better alternative: the recycle bin. My timeworn books could be repurposed to another life: pulped, soaked, removed of old ink and mold, and then made anew.
C. Weeding Out
The work began. Each book was given its due. Several had fond memories attached, like my first copy of The Catcher in the Rye, held together with cracked Scotch tape. At age 14 it blew me away that you could say the things Holden Caufield said—in a book! Other volumes were absolute puzzlements: how on earth had I accumulated a car repair manual for an automobile I never owned?
One by one books were divided into three piles: keep, giveaway, or recycle. Though it was initially painful, within minutes, the process became uncomplicated. Adios, decaying Macbeth. Adieu, waterlogged Grapes of Wrath. Arrivederci college textbooks of yore. So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, and goodbye to so many other old friends and acquaintances. The recycle bin filled quickly. It takes a lot of space to hold boxfuls of books accumulated over the course of a lifetime.
D. The End?
Hard as it was to get rid of so many once-cherished volumes, it was easier knowing that they would be regenerated into another form. Perhaps they would be become pages for a new author’s debut. If you’re an old-school consumer, they could be part of a printout you’re now reading. My old books might turn into paper bags, paper plates, paper towels, or—if you’re less sentimental than me—perhaps another popular paper product.
My basement is now cleaner. Its bookcases are now manageable, no longer jampacked repositories of once-beloved decaying entities. Though I miss my old books, their rebirth fills me with joy. Perchance we will meet again.
What is your personal relationship to books? Can you let go of a beloved but now-decrepit volume? Let's discuss in the comment section, or on Twitter at @RealArnieB