“For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story. For thirty-five years I’ve been compacting wastepaper and books, smearing myself with letters until I’ve come to look like my encyclopedias—and a good three tons of them I’ve compacted over the years.”
Usually, when I open the lid to dispose of notes or magazines, I savor the inky scent, the crisp shapes of bound and printed paper, and the satisfaction of recycling what we used to enjoy burning in the incinerator. Not so this week. Across stapled stacks of printer paper and a paperback copy of Danielle Steel’s Five Days in Paris (1995) was spattered, like medical waste, half a mushroom-and-artichoke pizza with extra sauce and garlic, judging by the scent. I have three sons. I’m not squeamish. But this was sickening – not so much the sight of the sticky pizza as the defaced paper products, especially the novel. Some criticism is too savage even for me. I’m not defending Steel, whose prose I’ve never sampled, but the defacing of her book with saucy foodstuffs seemed barbaric, an emblem of radical cultural indifference. I part company with Hrabel’s Hanta when he says, while operating his hydraulic press: “Books have taught me the joy of devastation.”
In “Bibliophilia and Biblioclasm” (Anything Goes: The Death of Honesty, 2011), Theodore Dalrymple defends the worth, sentimental or otherwise, even of books of dubious literary worth. He treasures a volume of De Quincey’s once owned by Edgell Rickword, a communist, and writes:
“Books….have an almost sacred quality in any case: it is necessary only to imagine someone ripping the pages out of a cheap and trashy airport novel one by one to prove to oneself that this is so. If we saw someone doing it, we should shudder, and think him a barbarian, no matter the nature of the book. The horror aroused by book burnings is independent of the quality of the books actually burnt.”
I removed the Steel volume, the sauce-drenched papers and the pizza, transferred them to the bin holding garbage and felt unexpectedly virtuous, like a man who gives a decent burial to a rat.