July 15, 2013KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsEthicsReading

Confessions of a Book Killer

Last Wednesday, I killed a book. I doubt anyone will miss it–Microphotography for Libraries: Papers presented to the Microphotography Symposium at the 1936 Conference of the American Library Association. Bound by twine, re-stapled, glued and taped, it was already living on borrowed time when I flattened it on the glass pane of the scanner to make a pdf. Pages loosened from the binding, dog-eared corners of foxed paper broke off in crumbs, and the cover detached completely from its guts. I slid the cover back on like a dust jacket, tied all the fragments together with the aforementioned twine, enclosed it, and slid the cardboard box into my mail tray, like a loved one in a mausoleum wall.

Of course, I am not the first to compare the destruction of a book to killing. In a passage from the opening pages of Areopagitica, oft-quoted by English professors, John Milton wrote that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.[…] Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God..”

This sentiment is still alive and well in the West. In his polemic Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001), Nicholson Baker details how mid-century librarians routinely cut the bindings from volumes like crust from a sandwich–loose pages are easier to microfilm. This method of violent reproduction “preserved” books. Since digitization replaced microfilm as our favorite way to reproduce and preserve, we have become even more comfortable with making photographic copies of obliterated originals.

When I scanned and destroyed Microphotography, I did so only to make it easier to read, not to preserve it. I must confess that I feel little remorse for what I’ve done. Unlike Milton and Baker, I do not see books as alive, though I’d say they have a “life cycle.” Decay is a process of thriving. When books break down, it is often because their organic materials are being devoured by microscopic life and insects, whether the book is made of wood fibers or rags or animal skins.  According to E. Werdet’s Histoire du Livre en France (1851), Boccaccio once traveled to the famed library of the Convent of Mount Cassin, only to find that grass sprouting from “the window-sills actually darkened the room,” every ancient manuscript “dreadfully dilapidated,” “an inch thick in dust.” Boccaccio fled and descended the stone stairs “with tears in his eyes.”

The poet grieved the way Nature reclaims the materials we have extracted from it–the coal soot in the ink, the calfskin of vellum, the flower and mineral pigments that adorn illuminated manuscripts. Books, like people, will all one day return to the earth. We, being lovers of people, and books, use our technology, whether microfilm or digitization, to deny this fact.

The same year that Microphotography was published, Robert Ettinger read a science fiction short story that inspired him to invent cryonics–a method for deep-freezing dead humans so that they may be revived hundreds of years in the future, when science will have progressed so much, Ettinger hoped, that the frozen dead can be cured of what killed them, and revived. If future humans are anything like us, their archaeologists will unearth our frozen corpses and mouldering book stacks. They’ll destroy what they find in order to preserve it–kill it, in order to give it new life.