Shelf Life: Is it Okay to Destroy Books?

Berlin book burning, 1933
Category: Reading

I have to admit, I can’t stand the idea of books being destroyed. I can’t even hack spine-breaking or doodling in the margins. When books are born they fall into one – or all – of the following categories: knowledge, entertainment or art object and all deserve a lengthy shelf life, on one or more shelves. 

I’m a book rescuer by nature – I pick up stray books on my travels and take them home. I’ll postpone book death as long as possible: to preserve them, I try not to carry them around; I keep them as long as I can, and then I pass them on.

I'm a book rescuer by nature; I'll postpone book death as long as possible

So you can imagine my horror when I learnt my mum threw out all her books when she discovered a ‘wee beastie’ in one of them. And that recently another family member tore up a book during a fit of rage with their five-year-old.

And this got me thinking, is it ever okay to destroy a book?

There is something really sad - and a little disturbing - about a torn-up book. And I don’t mean a neglected or well-loved book that’s a bit messed up, but one that’s been actively defaced or destroyed. It’s such a heinous crime there’s even a name for it: biblioclasm – the destruction of books. Biblioclasm is not a new phenomenon; we’ve been happily destroying books for centuries, from the Qin Dynasty and Ancient Egyptians to the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s to the British Library sneakily downsizing and a few Harry Potter burnings in the 2000s.

There are many reasons why books end up being destroyed: people don’t like their contents, people want to make a statement, or for the simple fact they take up too much space.

But is it okay to destroy them?

There is something very unsettling about the whole idea. It’s not just taking down an object and ripping up some paper. It’s a powerful symbol. It’s dystopian. It’s erasing knowledge, our past, our ability to learn and denying how far we’ve come as human beings. Think of the book-burning ‘memory hole’ at the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

[Book destruction is] a powerful symbol. It's dystopian.

To me, the simple answer is no – it’s not really okay to destroy books.  

I can’t stop all political and religious disagreements – it’s inevitable books will be a casualty of these periods in history – and I can’t argue that books haven’t slipped into the disposable culture we live in. We all need to downsize every so often, but there are plenty of ways to give a book a new life.

There are the traditional second-hand or charity shop routes or these far more creative endeavours to recycle books.

The next time you see someone on the verge of a book meltdown with a toddler or decide to bin books because of a few ‘wee beasties’ – please step in and rescue, re-home or recycle it!

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