Thursday, May 01, 2014

`No Matter the Nature of the Book'

In the coffee room of the building where my office is located are the customary twin receptacles – one for undifferentiated garbage, the other for paper. Informally, garbage is defined as banana peels, coffee grounds and discarded ballpoint pens – almost anything that isn’t made of paper. Our custodian, Miguel, is fastidious, and he never permits garbage to marinate long enough in the waste basket to stink. The blue bin holds cleaner stuff -- newspapers, computational math journals and posters defining sexual harassment and instructing us in the Heimlich maneuver. The paper bin is usually tidy, clean-smelling and remarkably heavy. As Hanta, the wastepaper compactor and narrator of Bohumil Hrabel’s Too Loud a Solitude (1976), says in the novel’s opening lines: 

“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.


Guy Walker said...

The sacred/precious nature of language, literature and art derive from the fact that they are what defines us and differentiates us from animals. Acts of art-vandalism and desecration or burning of books are essentially acts against sense. This is what we make when we use our sophisticated powers of communication to communicate reflections on our condition. Not to honour this is to miss the fact of our miraculous nature (imho!). Guess I'm simply re-explaining the raison d'être of your blog in so many words.....

RT said...

Books have a way of becoming sacred objects to some of us. Even the so-called "worst" books deserve special treatment. So I still feel guilty when I send any book to the recycling dumpster down the road. I recycle most books to libraries and thrift shops. Some books, though, especially those filled with my marginalia (another sort of defacing that is blasphemous), must go to the dumpster. I wonder why some of us feel that way about books.