Burn some books!

There are two major prohibitions that we learnt throughout the childhood

  1. Thou shalt not throw bread away.
  2. Thou shalt not throw books away. Never!

The message of these commandments is a simplified version of One should act respectfully, reasonably and responsibly with her material and spiritual goods: never be excessive and share if there is plenty. However, the taboo formulation is very strong in my mind (and minds of others, I believe) and more than once have I felt a strong unease when served too much bread for lunch — never ever have I left it; I’ve either forced myself to eat it or took it for later. (Interestingly, it does not translate directly to all other food, even though it seems logical that it would be the case.) The very same goes for the origin of the famous 5 seconds rule. Bread is sacred — it has an important role in religious ceremonies, but is as strong a metaphor for non-religious people.

In the second commandment, a book resembles bread from the first commandment, with all its characteristics translated to the intellectual world: a book is the basis of knowledge, it should be respected even by not hungry people and its value surpasses its cost significantly. The same assumption holds for books and breads equally: there is a value in it independent of quality (of specific book or specific bread). This is a very beautiful analogy, yet I came to believe that we should dismiss the second commandment completely. Even more: in order to truly respect books, we should question the scariest taboo there is —a taboo of burning books.

Idle books
The worst thing that can happen to a book is that it becomes idle. Once read, never opened again. Even worse: once bought, put on the shelf and never read. Those books fail to complete their only mission: sharing idea to as many people as possible; inspiring with their beauty; provoking and changing minds… 
Their (possibly) great potential would never be reached.
But so what? There are plenty of copies of a book and the same book exists in all its copies. And most of them are available and not too expensive, so it seems one idle copy hurts nobody.

photo: feministing.com

One third empty shelf
Wrong! Idle book is a sad book, but it also hurts its owner. There is only so much space on the shelf, and having it filled with idle books discourages the desire to get new ones. So what is the solution? Get some new shelves? Maybe, but didn’t work for me. Even if there is enough physical space, there is a congestion in mental space: in order to free that space one should be brutally honest and identify all idle books and put them back into action. The final goal: having only one third of the shelf empty and available for new books to come.

Could technology help?
This is one of the favourite advantages of e-readers (Kindle and alike) over traditional books. There is always enough physical space. However, that doesn’t solve a mental queue congestion, and lacks some features we like about good old-fashioned paper books: an ability to give it as a gift (virtual gift presented with boring, impersonal email notification simply can’t compete) and a pleasure of great covers, thick paper and the smell of a book.
What else could technology do here? In the era of smart things, it is easy to imagine book wrappers that would -on demand-change colors showing how hot a book is, how often it was opened last year etc. Similarly, a smart shelf that would keep most of the books in the background, while presenting each day another (smaller) set of recommended books (recommendation could be based on internet browsing, digital communication… even on the info from other smart things in home). That kind of shelf would -hopefully- reduce the number of idle books.

How to recognize an idle book
Idle books are not hard to recognize, the hard thing is to accept that -once loved and interesting- they became idle. The books that will never come to mind, for years — are idle. The books we don’t come back to, not even when there is plenty of time — are idle. The books we don’t enjoy to show to our friends, ones that we can’t see opening in next 6 months, ones we don’t even touch-those are all idle books. Some newly bought books could be idle as well — if they are in the queue to be read for too long, there might be a good reason for it. Declare it idle, don’t let your queue grow and congest.
A moment, please! Idle books can be very good books, books worth reading again and again. Maybe not now and not for you. But it is important to acknowledge that the book is idle and to treat it right.

What to do with idle books
Your book is not an ordinary property. Especially the book you’ve read — that makes you a privileged person to recommend it to somebody else. (Nowadays, there are too many books available, so that a good recommendation is extremely valuable.) Give that book as a gift, to a friend or to a stranger. Don’t hesitate if it’s obviously not new — books are like musical instruments: being read adds to their value. Or if you believe it could be interesting in 20 years or so again — lend it to a friend. Fight for your idle books — find a perfect new reader for them. If you fail — try to sell it. It usually won’t reach high price, but never mind. By selling a book, you offer it a new opportunity. And be a proud seller — look for a worthy buyer. Finally, there is an option to donate a book to a local library: this way book gets a new chance with a new reader, and you free your physical and mental space. As a final resort, after a fair fight you fought for your idle books — don’t hesitate to throw an idle book away. Throw it, burn it, let it go. You didn’t save that book, but it will help you open towards new books, looking for these few special ones, that will always stay with you and never become idle.

Thanks to Mirna Pavlović, Venita Mužek, Andrea Kovač and Kristina Gavran for reading the initial draft and suggesting improvements. Thanks Kristina as well for passionate discussions on the topic.

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