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Books Are Not Sacred Objects

Rebecca Joines Schinsky

Chief of Staff

Rebecca Joines Schinsky is the executive director of product and ecommerce at Riot New Media Group. She co-hosts All the Books! and the Book Riot Podcast. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccaschinsky.

The bookish internet exploded last week when, in what one report called “the worst craft idea ever,” Lauren Conrad (star of MTV reality shows and author of teen novels) cut apart a set of Lemony Snicket books and used the spines to decorate an otherwise plain box. The outcries were variations on the theme of, Nooooo, not books! That bitch! 

During the brief but passionate storming of Conrad’s castle, I couldn’t help but think, “Really? THIS is what book people have become?” I had just watched the same tempest hit a smaller teapot one day earlier when a photo posted on the Book Riot Facebook page of a ring box carved out of a book resulted in an unexpected and heated battle between Team That’s So Romantic and Team OH NO NOT BOOKS. The protests in both cases came across as absurd and overblown (when it seems they were intended to come across as evidence of what good bibliophiles the protesters were for decrying the destruction of books). And one has to wonder if the torch-bearing villagers were actually upset with Conrad, or if she was just the latest convenient scapegoat for the pervasive and unnecessary fear that the transition from print books to digital will spell the end of literature as we know it.

I don’t know about you, but I am sick of this conversation. And it’s not because I don’t love books. I do. I love paper books; I love ebooks; and I love the wreath made of book pages that hangs on my living room wall. They are not mutually exclusive.

So come on. We’re better than this. When you eat a popsicle, you don’t care what happens to the stick afterward. You might even pat yourself on the back for your eco-minded creativity when you recycle it into a craft, or hand it off to your kids to do the same. It’s not about the popsicle stick, and you know it. The popsicle is the thing you want; the stick is just the delivery device. Stop me if you know where I’m going here.

It’s the same with books. We love books for what they carry within them, not for what they’re made of. The story is the thing; the physical book or ereader or tablet or phone is merely the delivery device. When you fetishize the physical properties of an object, you devalue its contents. When you freak out over the ‘destruction’ of books, you are not elevating books. You are reducing the intangible magic of stories to the ink, pulp, and glue that deliver them to you.

Rachel Fershleiser, who has seen this issue from many sides–as an author, a bookseller who sorted donations at a used bookstore for six years, and a former publicist for Big Six publishers–expressed strong feelings about it on Twitter. Here’s what she said when I asked her to expand on them.

I am continually mystified by people who worship the physical object. They used words like “sacred” and “deface” and “murder.” My best guess is that these people have little experience working in a bookstore, library, or publishing house. Books are made from wood pulp. If they don’t sell, to wood pulp they return.

That’s right. Books that do not sell are often destroyed or recycled. Now how do you feel about bookish crafts as an alternative? Sure, I realize that a book that has been recycled into another object can no longer be read, but not every book needs to be saved and re-read. Not every book CAN be saved. (Hell, I’m sure we’d all agree that there are plenty books that shouldn’t have been published in the first place. Who’s to say they aren’t better off as craft supplies?) Fershleiser again:

If books find a place as art or craft or marriage proposal, I feel comfortable saying it is better than many deserve. If you think your local library or school or used bookshop will be overjoyed by your donation of World Book 1992 (for any purpose other than arts and crafts time, that is) I can assure you, you are sorely mistaken. Some books are worthless. It’s just a fact.

Fershleiser knows from book-crafting experience, so cover your ears, oh defenders of ‘the preciousssss.’

Many years ago I found a free book on a giveaway shelf with a nice red cover. With exacto knife and Aleene’s craft glue, I created a treasure box I use daily. The book is called Send A Fax To The Kasbah. Should anyone be eager to read it, there are currently 77 copies available on Amazon beginning at a price of $0.01. Knock yourselves out….Should we hold onto the ideas for posterity? Absolutely. Should we allow creative people to use stacks of paper for anything they damn well please? I am certain of it.

This obsession with protecting the book as a sacred object is misguided and counterproductive. It’s a distraction from the mission of keeping people interested in reading when a whole host of alternatives are constantly vying for their time and attention.  So how about this, fellow People of the Tome: Let’s stop wasting our time on self-congratulatory defenses of objects and redirect that energy to something that matters, like reminding the world of the value of literature and nurturing new readers. Let’s get our priorities back in line. To paraphrase my friend Bradley Robb, let’s not have container fetishes, let’s have story fetishes. The container is just a container, perhaps a reminder to us of what it holds. It’s the story that entertains us. It’s the story that changes us. It’s the story that is sacred. And no crafting project or technological advancement can change that.