Is It Okay To Throw Away Books?

It’s rare that a week goes by without a new book finding its way onto my overcrowded shelves. This is partly an occupational hazard, as someone who reads and reviews books professionally; they often come to me unbidden, mailed by publicists and publishers. But I’ll admit that it’s also a personal vice. Plucking a book from a little free library or buying one (or two) at my neighbourhood bookstore is a reliable pick-me-up, and like everyone else enduring the present, I am in perpetual need of a little treat to get through the week. Books have always occupied a special status among my possessions, an exemption from the guilt of consumption that strikes when I purchase a lipstick but never a paperback. Buying books feels wholesome, even virtuous. I like to tell myself that I’m doing my part to keep the publishing industry alive, as if my steady acquisitions are chest compressions for an ailing patient.

Usually, I read these new books, but not always. My interest is usurped by library books, with their urgent loan periods, or forthcoming releases I’m reviewing for work, or a TV series that I’m binging instead of reading anything at all. Have you seen Deadloch? It’s fantastic. By the season finale, the book I meant to read has been supplanted on my nightstand by another recent addition. The pile beside my bed never shrinks; at the bottom of the stack are books I’ve been planning to crack open for months. My shelves remain full of lingering aspirations.

I doubt I’m the only person with this problem. BookNet Canada, a nonprofit that collects data and produces research on the publishing industry, found that almost a third of surveyed Canadians read daily for leisure in 2022. Last year, we collectively bought nearly 49 million books. And we prefer books that take up space: physical volumes remain much more popular among readers of all ages, compared to ebooks or audiobooks. Still, the majority of readers are finishing fewer than one book each month—the rest, I assume, are accumulating in a shameful stack beside the bed.

For some, unread books aren’t an issue as long as they fulfill their implicit secondary function: as decorative objects and social signifiers. The pandemic only made this more conspicuous, as many of us have been compelled by Zoom, Google Meet, and the like to stage our private spaces for public viewing. In April 2020, a Twitter account called Bookcase Credibility began documenting and scrutinizing the ubiquitous bookshelves on display behind public figures as they gave media interviews or sat for photographers. As journalist Amanda Hess observed, “the bookcase offers both a visually pleasing surface and a gesture at intellectual depth.”

Admitting that one thinks of books as mere decor never fails to elicit disdain, like when the actress Ashley Tisdale confessed in 2022 that she asked her husband to buy 400 books to stage their home for an Architectural Digest photoshoot. But Hess points out that many people use books this way all the time. After all, she says, “the expert could choose to speak in front of his art prints or his television or his blank white walls, but he chooses to be framed by his books.” Books have talismanic power beyond the professional realm. In 2023, a Bustle editorial went viral for suggesting that “the thirstiest thing a man can do is read” and quoted a woman who went home with a guy because she spied him reading Michelle Zauner’s memoir, Crying in H Mart, at the bar. Just displaying a book is enough to unlock its erotic potential. Director John Waters once said, “If you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” Whether or not that person actually read them is a different story.

Everyone knows that our consumption habits are problematic and environmentally destructive: Canadians send more than a billion pounds of clothing, shoes, toys, and household items to the dump each year. But we have a hard time seeing books as mass-produced consumer items that ought to be consumed more thoughtfully, even though that’s what they are. A book is different from a pair of shoes or a scented candle—but is it that different? The kinds of excess we permit—even exalt—for books is unheard of for other categories of possessions. Even speaking of books as a consumer good feels vulgar, but I wonder if this sanctimonious attitude deprives them of their true value.

I try to use anything I buy as much as possible, and it’s always satisfying to reach the end of a tube of lip balm, scrape the last bit of peanut butter out of a jar, or burn a candle down to a crater of wax. Why shouldn’t we aspire to wear our books out too? A Valentine’s Day feature by the New York Times, which surveyed New Yorkers about their romantic gestures, included one participant who triggered an outpouring of online opprobrium by describing a fairly mundane practice among backpackers: ripping pages out of a book in order to read it in tandem with a partner. But isn’t that a better fate for a book than being relegated to a shelf as Zoom decor? And if we’re never going to read them, shouldn’t we let them go?

This is easier said than done. A single volume is easy enough to offload: slide it across the table while you’re out for dinner with a friend, or stick it in one of the many little free libraries that have sprung up across Canada. (As of March 2024, there were 3,875 little free libraries registered across the country, an increase of 29 percent in the past two years alone.) But if you have a lot of books, you’ll quickly discover that almost nobody wants them, especially if they’re old. The public libraries in Toronto and Halifax will accept some books that are less than five years old, but they appear to be outliers; many public library systems won’t take donations at all. Used bookstores, understandably, only want books that they think someone else will buy. My neighbourhood thrift store owner recently lamented that people are always trying to dump carloads of dusty volumes on him; he’s had to implement a “no books” policy to keep things from getting out of hand. The way he described the problem made me think of feral rabbits: one or two is no big deal, but invariably they multiply.

The crudest solution is to take them to a big thrift store, the kind that accepts anything you can stuff in a trash bag or cardboard box: Value Village, the Salvation Army, Goodwill. But then you’re just outsourcing the physical and psychological labour of throwing them away yourself, as thrift stores swiftly cycle through an endless stream of donations by discarding unsold items. In 2022, there was a public outcry after a Quebec high school filled a dumpster with unsold books that had been donated to a book fair fundraiser; some locals even clambered inside to rescue Danielle Steel paperbacks and old almanacs. (The school principal, nonplussed by the response, told the CBC that such recycling happens after each annual book fair.)

As growing numbers of school libraries across Canada are called upon to restrict access to certain books, often ones with content about sexuality or gender identity, it’s understandable that many of us feel protective. Stories are important, and worth defending, particularly in a moment when many of them seem threatened by intolerance. Still, it’s a stretch to extend that collective fight for literary freedom and expression to my personal reluctance to throw out a water-stained paperback edition of Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma, which I didn’t even like very much when I read it twenty years ago. But I’m nostalgic for my teenage self, who found it in a used bookshop and admittedly dropped it in the bath once; she’s still in there, tucked between the warped pages. The truth is that books do have a kind of animating power to summon long-held memories, emotions, and ambitions. My books are an archive of who I’ve been, who I might be, who I still hope to become: maybe a person who has read all of Roberto Bolaño’s hulking posthumous novel 2666, which I’ve been intending to finish for well over a decade now.

As a category of objects, books never expire or go out of fashion, and so I have the rest of my life to make it through that stack beside my bed. But I’m trying to let more of them go, read or unread, while they still have value—at least for a single person to deploy as seductive props. Other books might be destined for the recycling bin, if I can finally work up the nerve. At the end of the day, a book is just paper and ink and glue. Its soul is something else entirely, less tangible but more enduring than an object on a shelf.

Michelle Cyca is a contributing writer for The Walrus.

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