Spring Cleaning

T’other day I trashed a dozen paperback books from a distant era.  Ripped their covers off, tore the bodies in half or thirds along their brittle perfect-bound glued-up spines, and tossed ‘em into the recycling bin to await later pickup.  None of these books was less than thirty years old, and their pages had long since toasted to a deep Havana tan, speckled with mildewed sunspots along the edges. I’ve been winnowing the chaff from my bookshelves, donating most of the no–longer–re-readable rejects to charity for resale.  But bookish beggars apparently can be choosers: this particular group stipulates that it “cannot accept … paperback books with ripped covers or brown pages (dirty or mildewed) … anything you would not read in bed.”  However, they had no problem accepting books that you wouldn’t want to read in bed regardless of their condition:  literary efforts that will succumb only when the reader is sitting bolt upright in a hard, straight-backed chair, with a large cup of coffee close at hand.

When I dropped off my two boxes of booty at their warehouse, the ladies in waiting skimmed off the substandard volumes and returned them to me in a paper bag, explaining that their own recycling barrels were rapidly filling with other rejected books.  (Quite a posh bag it was, too —heavy, embossed paper all the way from Faubourg St. Honore.)  So it seemed that these were books not easily willing to die, but not worthy of reincarnation either.  John Barth. Donald Barthelme. E. L. Doctorow. William GassAlain Robbe-Grillet.  And other, lesser lights. Names once known and lauded in the pages of literary review journals, but now mostly dim or fading memories.

I had no intention of ever reading these books again, because in some instances I regretted having read them in the first place, but it seemed to me that something should be done to mark their passing.  So, as I ripped each volume in half at roughly the middle of its story, I paused to read aloud the first few sentences or paragraphs I saw there.  Intoned in a solemn Oirish accent of sorts, and then (when I eventually tired of mere Hibernian comedy) in a crude approximation of Australian.  Great fun, for an audience of none.  In most cases, the literary merit of the work was in no way improved thereby, but –for me at least– this mock oration nonetheless served as a brief and final elegy for fiction that was never destined for immortality as deathless prose.


Instead it’s fated to be pulped, deckled, dried, spooled, trimmed, wrapped, packed, shipped, stocked … and eventually re-sold.  Perhaps as toilet paper, 30% post-consumer recycled content.  A century ago, castoff books, pamphlets and magazines migrated to the outhouse, where their pages performed a similar function … without the protracted industrial intermediation that now provides so many marginal livelihoods.  In the 21st century, we may have interposed innumerable anonymous middlemen between the library shelf and the cesspit, but the end result is the same.  Little wonder that writers are treated like shit.  Good thing I don’t qualify as a writer, and that you can’t wipe your arse with the internet.


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