Can A Book Die?
It wasn’t any high-minded, pedantic literary work that taught me books could die. It was something basic, unassuming, and laughable.
Microsoft PowerPoint 1997 at a Glance.
Back when I was in college, my Italian class had to meet in a “classroom” (a spare room with desks in it) in the school’s library due to overcrowding.
Before the start of each session every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’d wait outside the glorified broom closet for the professor to arrive. I’d always see the same books on the shelf adjacent to the room’s entrance. Among those books, Microsoft PowerPoint 1997 at a Glance never failed to catch my eye.
Whenever I looked at that book I sneered. My head filled with thoughts like “What purpose could this thing possibly have to anyone in 2011 asides from a laugh,” “Why does a book detailing a 14-year-old version of a program still exist in this library,” “Why hasn’t this book been thrown in the recycling bin yet,” and many more.
I continued to go to class each morning and, before my customary “buongiorno” to the professor and my classmates, I’d mock that PowerPoint book in my haughty little head.
But one morning, towards the end of the semester, my jocular musings on the book began to change.
I wondered about the people who wrote that book, the people who were responsible for its creation, and I wondered about all of the people who read that book in 1997, back when it was useful. Microsoft PowerPoint 1997 at a Glance wasn’t always trash; it once meant something to people.
It was the work of an author, an editor, and a publishing company — and the people who worked for that company, sales people, marketing people, et cetera. Many individuals worked hard to get it done and to get it ready for bookstores and libraries across the world, not to be made fun of or slighted, but to be used by students, professionals, and others who would learn, presumably, how to use the 1997 incarnation of Microsoft PowerPoint.
I realized that back then the book was alive. But did it still live when I was looking at it?
I began to think about all the Library’s “forgotten” books in the same way.
Were the books, for all intents and purposes, “dead”? Can a book even die? Does it live as long as those who have read its words still linger on? Or does a book only draw breath when its pages are exposed to the world once more?
I thought of the countless books in just that one library. How many of them haven’t been read in years if not decades? I once took out a book on the Lend-Lease Act that hadn’t been taken out in over 16 years. Another book I used for my senior thesis was last stamped in the 1980s. Some books in the library were so old the text on their spines and covers had been completely worn away; they were unnamed tombstones in a graveyard infused with “old book smell.”
I realized that each unread book was possibly (and likely) someone’s life’s work, their “magnum opus,” the greatest thing that they had ever done, the only thing that separated them from ignominious mediocrity. Yet that special thing, that book, that part of their soul expressed in ink and words, was now simply a waster of space, almost definitely to never be opened again unless by accident.
These books, Microsoft PowerPoint 1997 at a Glance and its ilk, are therefore well and truly buried, although they’re entombed in dust instead of dirt and the apathy of generations serves as their coffins.
The band Modest Mouse once remarked that “it takes a long time, but God dies too.” Just so, books also perish after long enough. If the ages of men are like leaves, the ages of books are like the trees: steadfast, but not immutable, and just as helpless against the passage of time.
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