Thursday, 8 November 2007

Is it immoral to throw books away?

I was flabbergasted, the other day, to drive into my daughter's school and see a pile of some 600 or 700 books lying discarded in the driveway, next to the paper-recycling skip. My flabbergastation soon turned to incredulity when I dived into the pile and found a whole load of wonderful books from the sixties and seventies, many of which were my constant companions as a child.

I tackled the headmistress of the junior school, who was walking past at the time, and asked her if I could help myself to some of the books, and load the rest into my boot to take to my local library, which has a book sale every year to raise funds for new titles. She was bewildered: "I don't know anything about this, but if they're going to be thrown away, you're more than welcome to them."

I was so pleased by this unexpected windfall (I am nutty about children's books) that I thought I'd better double-check that no-one would take offence. So I phoned the school's junior library and asked the person who answered the phone if she'd mind my carting the books away. "No problem!" she said. "We've withdrawn them from the library and you are welcome to them."

I spent a happy hour sifting through piles and piles of books, emitting little mews of joy whenever I came across a book that I'd loved as a child. I sorted them into three piles: books to keep to read to my own daughter, books to take to the library sale, and books fit only for the skip (the Sweet Valley High series and the Goosebumps books fell into this category). The pile was so big that I managed to get through only half of it, so I went back the next day to finish the job.

Another school mother was rummaging through the pile, and she looked furious. 'How CAN they throw books away?' she said. 'In a country with schools that have no books at all, how can they just dump them?' She told me she'd already complained to the headmistress - who, again, had no idea that a book-dump was in progress, and who promised to look into it. I heartily agreed with the school mother, and we had a long talk about books, reading, libraries and literacy.

Feeling all virtuous, I took two bootloads to my local library, where they were gratefully accepted. All the librarians, save one, shared my outrage that books should be dumped in the road. The save-one librarian commented - and she has a point here - that borrowers don't want old, tattered books: they want crisp new books with shiny new covers. "Libraries have to get rid of old books," she said. "We have limited shelf space and we can't hang onto the old books forever."

Ok, fair enough. Discard the boring, dog-eared, yellowed ones to make way for Harry Potter, Junie B Jones, and their ilk, but please don't throw the old books in the road. Give them to an impoverished school, or have a book sale, or hand them out for free to passers-by. I admit that old books have virtually no value at all in a country where illiteracy is a serious challenge, but you never know... if just one bright kid in a poor school picks up a book by Tolkien or CS Lewis or Rumer Godden or Jack London or Charles Dickens or Shakespeare, or any dusty old genius, and is moved and inspired and electrified by that book, then something remarkable has happened.

Excuse me for carrying on (said she, warming to the topic) but I'm also irked by the the fact that children's classics are no longer considered attractive reading material for children. In the dump of books I found several books (including a handful of handsome first editions) by luminaries such as Richmal Crompton, Monica Dickens, Rumer Godden, C.S. Lewis, Joan Aiken, Enid Blyton, Gerald Durrell, Mary Stewart, Astrid Lindgren, J R R Tolkien, Jane Gardam, and so on. Gulliver's Travels, Heidi, Black Beauty, What Katy Did, Charlotte's Web, Three Children and It - the list goes on and on. Ok, these classics are likely to be reprinted now and then, and maybe they'll find their way onto the shelves of your child's school library. Then again, maybe not.

And what a great pity that is.

An afterthought: I found one copy of a book, a first edition with a good dust jacket, printed in the 1970s, that is so rare that, even with its library markings, it can fetch a handsome sum (around 500 Euros). If I sell it, do I keep the money and buy more books for myself, or do I give the money to the school who discarded it? Answers on a postcard.

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Joy-Mari Cloete said...

My mother rarely had reason to buy me books: the school she taught at, used to spring-clean their library on a regular basis, and then she would take those books home to me!

Some of my best-loved books were hand-me-downs. Some of the books I enjoyed most, were old and worn.

I used to be guilty of throwing books away. These days, I realise that it will be better to donate it to whoever.

meggie said...

My mother had saved some of her childhood books, & I loved them dearly. I was given handmedown books from a girl who felt she was now adult- how i loved all those old books!
My brother has been known to visit the dump, in days gone by, & return with a bootload of books! Treasure unmeasured.
If you sell the book, treat yourself!

Juno said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juno said...

Thanks Joy-Mari and meggie - glad to know there are others who are as sentimental about old books as I am.

What were your favourite books? I was absolutely smitten by the William books (all thirty-eight of them; I have about 24 in my collection, all dog-eared and battered) and by Pippi Longstocking. I also loved Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, and all the other books in the same series, although they are very dated now.

angel said...

totally beautifully handled!!! i am so impressed!
i can't throw them out- i give them to schools and such but i can't toss them...