Our branch library has stopped accepting donations of used books. This was probably a prudent decision. Often on my way to work, when I stop to return books through the over-night slot, I’ve seen bags and boxes of books and magazines stacked against the front door, sometimes swollen with rain. The shelves labeled “BOOK SALE” inside seem never to change. The same bestsellers, textbooks, religious tracts and National Geographics are always there. Once or twice I’ve found books worth the price (hardbacks, 50 cents; paperbacks, 25 cents), though the only treasure I claimed was a first edition of Without a Stitch in Time (1972) by Peter de Vries. Now the library will have more shelf space for the DVD collection.
Of course, in halting the practice of accepting and selling used books, the librarians are merely following their own best practices. The circulating collection is forever being purged, without notice or explanation. The most recent victim I observed was The Goldin Boys (1991), Joseph Epstein’s first collection of short stories. I know it was there as of roughly four years ago, when I last reread it. Now, like Trotsky standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Lenin, it has been erased. This too makes a cynical sort of sense. As Dr. Johnson reminds us in The Rambler #106: “No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue. . .”
But there is something dispiriting about the disposal even of lousy books. X.J. Kennedy captures the note of comedy present even in this depressing reality. “Rummage Sale” is collected in That Swing: Poems,2008–2016:
“Here are the dregs of bookshelves cast aside:
Book of the Month Club choices now refused.
The memoirs of some general swelled with pride,
Labor-intensive cookbooks still unused—
“The castoffs of a season of demeaning,
Cleared from the house relentlessly as sweepers
Rout dust clouds in a merciless spring cleaning.
Book buyers these folks were, but not book keepers.
“I wonder at this thick tome’s long regress,
Hacked out by one whose fame and sales were stellar,
Now cast down from the tower of success
To molder in a spiderwebbed best cellar.”