When I was the Literary Captain in secondary school, I gave a brief speech every Friday at assembly. Usually, this was a simple Quote of the Week, such as:
But for Book Week, I was to run a special assembly. And because I was going to be on show, I decided I had to have the biggest, wildest costume I’d ever done in thirteen years of Book Weeks.
So I went as the dictionary.
Unfortunately, no record of this day has survived, yet somehow I have a million photos from later the same year, when I dressed as Derek Zoolander for House Drama. So imagine this, only more homemade, and on a slightly curvier model:
Construction was actually pretty straightforward. I bought a couple of old primary-school dictionaries from an op shop and pulled out the pages. The pages were lined up along rows of duct tape and affixed to my black skirt and shirt. The skirt was a wrap-around, which was great because it was the second-loudest costume I’ve ever worn and I had to take it off during class. You could have heard me rustling from half a block away. But it looked awesome.
The reason I bring it up today, though, was that for every ten ‘nice costume, Amelia!’s, there was one ‘how could you do that to a book?’ Even when I explained that they were obsolete and unwanted primary school dictionaries from 1982, a few people still lamented that I had destroyed them to make my costume.
More recently, I’ve seen this attitude expressed in the comments of crafting videos that offer ideas on how to make use of old books. No matter how useless the book might be, thousands of people in the comments cry out that it’s an ‘atrocity’ to destroy ANY book, EVER. They plead for the books to be donated, given away or resold.
These people seem unaware that libraries and op shops have to throw out hundreds of books every year because nobody will borrow or buy them.
And all this got me thinking.
Why do we consider books sacred? Why do we baulk at destroying them?
Most old books are not rare first editions of classics. Some are worth less than the paper they’re printed on. Tired old airport-bought thrillers. Self-published religious tirades. Obsolete text or reference books (‘Management in the Digital Age, 1999!’).
Perhaps it’s not about what a book is, but what it represents.
When the Ancient Mesopotamians invented writing around the third millenium BCE, they didn’t do it to tell stories or communicate with one another. Talking was good enough for them at that point. Writing actually evolved from counting – making marks in soft clay to keep track of things bought and sold. It took a few hundred years for a system to emerge in which the marks stood for sounds and words, rather than numbers. Writing at this time was a laborious process. Clay had to be sourced from the earth, painstakingly marked with a calamus (a notched reed) and fired in a kiln. Only an elite few knew how to read and write, and the tablets were meticulously organised and categorised in the libraries of kings and nobles. The Mesopotamians didn’t even throw away complaint letters or bills written on clay. These administrative documents comprise most of the written material we have from the Mesopotamians.
For the next four and a half thousand years, writing and books remained special. Only aristocracy and priests could read or write, in many societies. People wrote on hand-pressed papyrus, on goatskin, on silk, on wood. They chiselled the letters out, painted them with horsehair brushes or wrote them with quills. If writing was special, a scroll (or later, a codex) was even more so: it represented thousands of man-hours of recording information that wasn’t available anywhere else. Often, these books were works of art.
Book production changed with the printing press in 1440. No more did one poor scribe have to waste his sunny afternoons reprinting Wylde Beestes of the Forreste by hand. Ink was rolled onto a set of metal letter blocks and stamped – kashing! – onto the page. Suddenly, thousands of copies of a single book could be made and sold.
This innovation in bookmaking exploded (as did many others) during the Industrial Revolution, with the advent of steam presses and paper mills. At this time – in the West, at least – literacy also became more widespread.
These days, for a fee, you could have any old drivel put in print tomorrow, if you wanted to. Much has changed about books and writing in the last thousand years… but it seems that the way we think of the book as an object has not.
We’re taught, as small children, to treat books with respect. We trade books with friends and loved ones in a way that we don’t seem to exchange other objects. A book usually only costs twenty or thirty dollars, but we tend to treat them as if they’re worth much more.
Despite massive technological and cultural changes in the way we create and consume books, the book remains a symbol of knowledge, of power, of art and wealth. This is partly why certain people burn books: not only to destroy the words inside them, but as a display of power over the ideas they contain.
In addition to an emotional connection to the stories we find in some books, perhaps it’s this symbolic aspect that makes us revere books… even useless ones.