Requiem for a Dumpster Full of Books

Lance Morrow:

The dumpster behind the arts center in our upstate New York village is filled to the brim with discarded books—thousands of volumes that now, after a rainy August, have grown soggy and begun to dissolve, reverting squalidly to pulp. The mass grave is an unsettling sight to someone who was brought up in the worship of books.

The dumpster out back seems at odds with the sign in front of the arts center, which proclaims its annual “Festival of Books”: “More than 15,000 affordable, gently used books” for sale, all of them donated by locals. The thousands of volumes in the dumpster are the cull—the ones judged too damaged, smelly or defaced to be saleable.

Plenty of freshly published books are trashy, of course, but it’s somehow unbearable to see books in the trash. Book people in their reverence hold that to destroy books amounts to sacrilege and profanation. We are Old Believers in the cult of print. We accumulate scores and hundreds of books on our shelves. When the shelves are full and sagging, we build more. Books are friends, oracles, household gods, characters in the ongoing drama of our minds. If we own a book we haven’t read, we savor the knowledge that it’s there on the shelf, waiting—like money in the bank.