Between the Lines

The Bunn Library has a small corner dedicated to the “Freecycle Cart,” which features old library books on topics ranging from New Orleans geography to adolescent poetry.

The Bunn Library has a small corner dedicated to the “Freecycle Cart,” which features old library books on topics ranging from New Orleans geography to adolescent poetry. A note attached to its side invites visitors to take these books home with them. In fact, I have taken six myself, adding to my humble dorm-room book collection in the Upper House. It is all well and good to stumble upon a windfall of free books once in a while, but when I see the cart stacked with the same pile of books after months, it’s upsetting.

In this digital age, physical copies of books are becoming a thing of the past. Unworthy books simply fade into total oblivion, while the worthy classics have been digitized, readily available at your fingertips. Want to read Harry Potter, Le Petit Prince, or 100 Years of Solitude? Well, just go to Scribd or pick up an e-reader. Wonder where the world’s deepest trench is? Google is your friend. With the advent of such convenient technology, original copies which have stood the test of time for so long are ending up in landfills. If fountains of wisdom and hubs of entertainment can now be accessed with a few simple clicks, who needs books in the first place, let alone earthy-smelling, yellowed ones?

However, old library books are much more than their contents. Through their experience with different readers, they acquire their unique appearance, scent, and tactile qualities that distinguish them from all other copies of the same title. Even the foxing, ripped pages, scribbles, and highlights are proud marks of their battle experience. Unfortunately, we have come to dislike this aspect of library books, associating it with inelegance. On the flip side, if we look closely enough, we will often discover the countless stories that lie within those stitched stacks of stale paper. For example, coffee stains in a book could indicate that it was once used by a busy salaryman trying to juggle his hobby for reading with workplace obligations. On the other hand, dog ears suggest that once upon a time someone without a bookmark was trying to make do. Watching bits and pieces of these little stories unfold can prove one of the greatest delights of reading; after all, books tend to reward the observant reader who appreciates their past. Needless to say, all this rich, flavorful history would be all but lost through digitization. The world of the LED screen, with its endless rows of letters and numbers, is barren and lifeless in comparison. Even when technology has allowed us to efficiently store the information in those books, we ought to recognize this irreplaceable value of the original copies—all the more reason to reserve a place for them in today’s world, right?

Reading old library books is also a way to connect with the past and honor the wisdom of the old. Back when there were no online data banks, books served as the primary platform for people who had something to say. Since publishing books was a much more laborious process than it is now, old books are palpably chock-full of human effort and perseverance. They harbored the life and soul of people who came before us and provide their readers a humbling sort of satisfaction that cannot be found elsewhere. Additionally, these books distinctly reflect the spirit of the era in which they were written. Think of how biology textbooks published in the 1980s say very different things from those we use today. Although these outmoded texts are no longer relevant, we can get a sense of what our parents’ lives were like in their high school days. They are truly windows to the past. Libraries play a very important role in preserving this vestige of bygone days, as they are the last stronghold for out-of-print books that are unlikely to be digitized. Sad as it may be, sometimes great books just do not sell well and become impossible to find on the market, but they do enjoy a continued existence on library bookshelves. This is why when nearby libraries finally decide to ‘weed’ those old books to make space for newer ones, I feel the urge to rescue them.

As a longtime benefactor of those “weeded” books, I can attest to the joy of collecting and living with old library volumes. Lying under my bunk bed are The Art of Personal Essays, which is a life saver in the college application process, and the first edition of Catcher in the Rye, which was last checked out in 1978! Apart from being no less useful than brand new books, they have a unique, awe-inspiring quality to them. They remind me that we are part of a larger story. Above all, they are free. I did not have to buy Walking to Listen or The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass because a local library in Wolfeboro was getting rid of them and I just happened to be there. If you like reading and giveaways, drop by the Freecycle Cart and see if anything catches your attention! If we as a community can learn to appreciate old library books, they will not be worthless.


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