Is the novel dying? Yes, and I’m the one to kill it. Today alone I have dumped several hundred pounds of paperbacks, magazines, cloth and leather-bound books straight into a dumpster so that they may be destroyed. I have thrown away encyclopedias, international bestsellers, Nobel Prize winners, and books that have been around longer than I have been alive. Yes, it is so many that I must not measure their destruction in books, but in pounds—possibly in increments of 25-gallon bins, anywhere from one to three dumpsters per day are filled to capacity with books to be shredded and liquefied, turned back into pulp before the process starts again.
Is the novel dying? Yes, though it’s reborn just as often. We follow this cycle constantly—destruction and recycling into new creation—and only now am I beginning to appreciate the transient state of the written word, that for every book held onto and coveted there are ten more that literally cannot be given away.
The first time I threw a stack of books into a dumpster I felt a sense of guilt, like I was slapping the face of my own writing aspirations, like three years of graduate school and several half-finished manuscripts no longer mattered, that the writing itself is merely an object, one to be destroyed without much thought. I watched as countless copies of National Geographic, Tom Clancy novels with ripped dust jackets, and outdated children’s books slid down the avalanching wall of paper. Whenever I tell my friends about the ridiculous volume of books being destroyed, they ask me why we don’t try to sell them or donate them or something. I tell them “yes, yes, I know,” or “we donate what we can but there’s just too much.” At least I used to say these things.
It frightens me to think that this whole thing no longer bothers me in the slightest.
* * * *
Of course it all begins with the written word, with paper, with the used bookstore job where I’ve spent the past few months. I cannot say which one because I am contractually forbidden from doing so, though I will tell you that it is part of a chain whose mission involves recycling and sustainability, and that out of over 100 stores in the company, the location I work is consistently in the top three in terms of sales and purchases. We are a small to medium-sized store located in a suburban strip mall between a hardware store and a Subway. I can tell you that we are located across the street from a major hospital and that today, a January Monday with no real sale or promotion, we bought 2700 books and sold 3259 more. I am told that our busy season is summer and these numbers may double. Most of these books are old bestsellers, mystery paperbacks and book club selections from several years prior. The type of book you once knew but no longer consider, the kind you will forget the moment it leaves your hands.
The job resulted after seven months of unemployment, after ever diminishing expectations for my future. I spent the last three years getting a master’s degree, and of course I’ve heard the old cliché about the professional uselessness of an English degree, but I did not realize the difficulties I would face. It was, and is, an interesting spot: being overqualified for most entry-level positions with an advanced degree while simultaneously being under qualified for everything desirable due to lack of work experience. After some 75 applications ranging from teaching college writing courses to writing ad copy for a company dealing in Civil War replica weapons to butchering meat at a local co-op, I finally landed an interview for a job stocking shelves at a Target department store. They decided not to hire me.
And so I embraced the second cliché of the English degree: I applied for a job at a bookstore, proceeded to be my awful awkward self, bombing the interview, yet somehow got called back a few weeks later—a feeling of both excitement and dread.
A typical day: an hour before opening, employees arrive with the simple mission of picking up books left in inappropriate places: on the floor, on top of bookcases, shoved back on a shelf where they do not belong. After an hour of cleaning and organizing, the doors open to at least four or five people already gathered around the door, ready to shop. These people will grab shopping carts and sprint, literally sprint, back to our clearance section, where they will begin to scan barcodes on the dust jackets of our reduced-price books, trying to figure out which ones can be sold online for a profit. The rest of the customers will come in smaller waves: lunch and post-work rushes of customers, the occasional van-load of books wheeled into the store on loaded-up hand carts, at least a dozen phone calls asking if we have a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. The work itself is a constant rotation of buying, selling, pricing, and shelving.
The store itself, like every bookstore ever, has a serious problem with dust. I take Claritin daily and still spend most days sneezing uncontrollably as I stock the shelves with incoming merchandise. The dust comes from everything, gets stuck everywhere, blows out in puffs when flipping through old paperbacks. A shelf at my home won’t look noticeably dusty for a few weeks, well past a month, but I must dust the shelves of my sections every three days because the obscene quantities of microscopic paper fragments and the accumulated dead skin cells and hair of every customer and former owner form a layer of grime on top of every book and shelf.
The other day I helped unload several boxes of what a customer told me are collectible books. In this case collectible meant old, which simply meant extra mold and dust and mouse shit as these boxes sat in a basement for probably decades. I spent the remainder of the day scratching at the hives covering my arms.
My first week on the job, a coworker came up to me at the cash register and asked me what useless degree I earned before showing up here. I looked at him just a moment before telling him. He smiled, told me not to worry. His was sociology. From there, our other coworkers chimed like a demented roll call where we’re all known for our unfulfilled fields of study: “Medieval Studies!” “Philosophy!” “Architecture!” It seems that everyone is working on a novel, and I am told and then re-told about how a now-famous children’s author used to work in our warehouse. The story is told with a sense of both pride and expectation.
In these first few weeks, though shelving and working cash registers, I am not yet allowed to buy books that our customers bring to us. This, I am told, comes after weeks of learning what books are valuable to the store, which ones will sit on a shelf for six months before selling out of clearance, and which ones go straight into the trash. Instead of the hours I would spend buying, I spend my time alphabetizing shelves of horror and mystery paperbacks, answering customer questions, and disposing of everything we cannot sell.
* * * *
Here’s how you turn books back into paper: First you take a book and shred it into nothing, make pages and binding and glue indistinguishable. Mix with chemicals and hot water, wait for the ink and unwanted materials to rise to the top before skimming it off. Take what’s left and bleach it, spray and roll it into flat sheets, which should then be pressed and dried, eventually cut down to size. The recycled product will not be as high in quality as that which precedes it.
I know this because I know paper. I can tell you about its feel, about different textures and levels of glossiness and sheen. I can tell you about thickness and the difference in feel between papers made of rice or wood or other recycled matter. I could feel a page of a book and tell you whether it comes from a mass-market paperback, hardcover, or book-club edition. I can tell you whether or not it’s a Bible based on the thinness of the pages, the weight of the book in my hands.
A cliché about the world of literature: you cannot judge a book by its cover.
But we do. We do it all the time. The bookstore won’t even buy most books without a dust jacket because it is simply that important.
I can tell you the decade a book was published by the image on the cover. I could tell you whether it comes from a large, small, or university press based entirely on font. I can tell you whether it has been self-published or comes from a vanity press with little more than a glance. I could tell you how much a paperback costs based purely on touch.
Does your book have a spiral binding? It’s going straight into the garbage because it can’t be displayed on a shelf. A strange shape? A curved spine? Is it a children’s book with a fuzzy cover your kid probably chewed on? Garbage. Garbage. Garbage.
You believe your book is worth a lot because it’s a bestseller? That just means that everyone in the world already owns a copy. Like you, they probably read it once and are ready to dispose of it.
When I begin buying books these stereotypes are emphasized: of course no one can be held responsible for knowing the value of the entirety of literature. Instead, our employees develop methods for figuring out which books sell and which get recycled. Take self-help: the genre is driven by fads, so any book not published in the past two years will not make it to the shelf. The same goes for business or politics. Any cookbook before photos were staged with fake food will contain actual images of fully prepared meals that look disgusting. Romance series come out practically weekly, and anything older than six months simply will not sell. An Oprah’s Book Club logo is practically the kiss of death.
Conversely, fads can make an otherwise awful book valuable. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become so popular that mysteries with Swedish sounding names are suddenly selling well: names like Jo Nesbø and Camilla Läckberg begin selling so well that I’m convinced that adding an umlaut to a last name will sell your book, even if good writing won’t.
I hate the cynicism that constantly looms in the back of my mind, but the more I see these books as economic forces, the truer it all becomes. The best selling books are ghostwritten by nameless writers impersonating famous names—everyone from Tom Clancy to Danielle Steele to the Heaven Is for Real kid to every celebrity’s memoir ever. Certain authors sell based on their relation to famous writers. Others sell based on similarities to already popular works. Put a vampire on your cover. Add a few more zombies. Let your book’s ending be decided by an online poll. And I’m mad and perplexed because this type of thing actually works.
A book can sell over a million copies and be forgotten within two months of publication.
There’s a fine line between being a 100-year-old collector’s item and a moldy waste of space.
The longer I work here, the more these books become objects, commercial goods, so much so that I increasingly hate the idea of them, increasingly want to recycle them all, to make them all blank once again. I want to wash away the words and have the potential for something better. There’s a value here, I think: taking the old and making it new. Whether it starts as a tree or a paperback it all comes out the same shade of white on the other side.
It’s the jobs within a job that hold the most value. Within weeks I am the one who volunteers to take out the recycling, to load up three bins onto a cart, wheel them past shelves of Humor, True Crime, and Games. Past our loading area to the dumpster out back. Most of the employees here throw the books in one at a time to lighten the strain, but I take pride in my ability to lift these containers over my head before dumping them over the lip of the dumpster, to hear the rattle of hardcover hitting metal like the fist of God.
* * * *
Boredom has a way of bringing out the worst in me. I should be used to it by now: I still haven’t discovered how to handle going to the same place every day, the stress of repetitive motion. The whole thing bothers me so much that I walk around most days with some abstract sense of dread, and then I remember that I sell used books for a living and my biggest problem in life is having to tell some kid that no, sorry, we do not have any more copies of The Hunger Games. It’s not like I risk death or mutilation or even any kind of decision of consequence. A paper cut or a snarky comment from a customer ruins my afternoon while I remember my days as a summer temp at a paper mill: men working in triple-digit temperatures next to pipes that could burst and kill them all with unfathomable amounts of high-pressure steam. And then I remember that I’m getting this worked up over shelving fucking books and that I’m a melodramatic and probably awful person.
The main thing that combats the boredom is the esoteric books I keep discovering, obscure titles that I would never discover otherwise. From our recycling bins I have already rescued a book of Black Box transcripts from plane crashes and a novelization of The Blues Brothers. I hope to someday buy a 350-page textbook on bowling psychology, along with a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook and the Criterion Collection’s re-release of Robocop. I am constantly in awe of the fact that someone took the time to create these works, that someone else would have enough faith in them to pay to have them published, that someone else would get excited enough to buy them.
Beyond the books are the ephemera stuck between their pages. I have found pressed flowers, receipts, and plane tickets from airlines that no longer exist. I have found notes and dedications and encouraging slogans inside Alcoholics Anonymous Blue Books. Customers have brought us boxes of books to sell that have included half-eaten lunches, sex toys on multiple occasions, and entire colonies of spiders. We get boxes of books from dead relatives, ones that haven’t been opened in decades, buried in mouse shit and June bugs. I have found a burned CD entitled “I want to sex you up” including two separate songs titled “Get Me Off.” I am starting a photo album made up entirely of strangers.
Then I start making up games to play, some way of distracting myself in the quest for continued sanity. I find used Huey Lewis albums from our music section and shelve them in “Sports.” I put Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America in “Fishing” and nobody gets it. I begin leaving my own notes in-between pages, hoping they can make it home with a customer before they can be pulled. I organize the horror paperback shelf and get rid of everything without a skull on the cover. I’d like to rename it the “SKULLS” section, though I’m hoping I won’t be around long enough to make this happen.
* * * *
Depression for Dummies, Alzheimer’s for Dummies, Athletic Scholarships for Dummies, Boosting Self-Esteem for Dummies (UK Edition), Eating Disorders for Dummies, Grieving for Dummies, Homeschooling for Dummies, NASCAR for Dummies, The Origins of the Universe for Dummies, Overcoming Dyslexia for Dummies, Quantum Physics for Dummies, Sex for Dummies, Pregnancy for Dummies, Parenting for Dummies.
* * * *
A man comes in with several hundred CDs, nearly all of them scratched beyond use. We check them individually, find the few worth keeping, and offer the man five dollars. He yells, tells us we’re ripping him off, that we’re going to turn around and sell them for hundreds. Like dust jackets, appearance is everything—a normal CD will play just fine through a few surface-level abrasions, but a customer will not pay for something looking damaged. We tell the man this and he yells some more, telling us he’s going to take them home and sell them at a garage sale instead.
I hear this argument all the time: that our customers could make more money selling their stuff themselves. And it’s true, if they’d rather sit outside in a lawn chair all weekend, and if the right person came along to buy a collection of late ’90s nu-metal, scratched to hell, then they might be lucky enough to make five dollars off of a wasted weekend.
Ironically, the books we actually do pay well for—bestsellers, collectible items, current editions of college textbooks—are the ones people would make significantly more money selling themselves online. But even then these books run the risk of not selling immediately, or in the case of expensive autographed books, not selling at all: who would pay so much money for an item they could not see or hold, could not verify was, in fact, “Like New?” Customers usually prefer to go to a store where they have the potential to investigate, to play Antiques Road Show and discover some unknown valuable. Plus, there are thousands of other books and movies and CDs, many of them cheaper than at the average garage sale.
So yes, if you’d like, by all means sell them yourself. It’s one less thing for me to throw away.
* * * *
Showed up to work three hours late today. No one noticed my absence.
* * * *
But I’m being hypercritical. I am complaining about a job that gives me a paid hour each day for eating and reading. I am complaining about a marvelous checkout program that lets me research esoteric subjects without paying for expensive textbooks.
So let’s take a moment to thank each and every one of you who makes this job possible. Thank you, paperback copies of The Help, thank you Vince Flynn, Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, and John Sandford. Thank you, William Kent Krueger. Thank you, Lee Child, for no shelf can hold you for more than several hours. Let’s also thank the entirety of World War II literature, every copy of season one of Sex and the City that ever existed, every Family Guy DVD I’ve ever sent straight to clearance. Thank you tarot cards, manuals of witchcraft, and the healing properties of crystals.
Thank you, Jodi Picoult. Thank you, three-dollar copies of Wicked.
Thank you, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Hunger Games, and all movies based on books. If not for you I would still be filling out applications in my basement.
Let us thank the obscure mystery paperback series that crop up overnight, the ones that cover hyper-specific genres and scenarios and that sell at such alarming rates: Thank you.
Tea House Mysteries, Used Book Store Mysteries, Talking Cat Mysteries (many options!), Siamese Twins Mysteries, Talking Dog Mysteries, Cookie Mysteries (Recipe Inside!), Chef Mysteries (Fiber and Brimstone!), White House Chef Mysteries, White House Cleaning Lady Mysteries, Writers on Assignment, Lawyers, Kid Lawyers, Retired Lawyers, Jane Austen Mysteries, William Shakespeare Mysteries, and Cheese Shop Mysteries such as Lost and Fondue and The Long Quiche Goodbye.
* * * *
An elderly woman, accompanied by her daughter, walked into the store with box upon box of old books and records. The books were so old that the paper inside them was now brittle and fragile, bound in these books for longer than I’ve been alive. While I helped her unpack, she told me that I was holding 70 years of her life in my hands. She said this with a smile, a certain amount of pride for holding on to every album, every story read over the majority of her adult life.
Half an hour later, she would be telling my manager, as well as me and my coworkers, that we should all go fuck ourselves.
And the problem is I totally get it: I understand that everything she was offering us was well-loved; that her albums were in fact rare and in some cases unique; that the books she read were no less good because of their age.
I also understand that hardly anyone can play 78-rpm records anymore, that we simply cannot pay that much money for anything on Laserdisc. That something might only be rare because nobody else cared enough to keep it. But the real concern is that we connect emotionally with what we read, that the stories in books become the stories of our lives. It isn’t just words and it isn’t just paper: there are worlds created and destroyed, any number of realities and escapes. There are characters in books that are more real than people we see every day. To put a monetary value on that seems impossible, but to put a low value on it seems blasphemous.
But still, I get it, and no one wants to buy this shit.
Her reaction, though extreme, was not unprecedented. Another customer punched over a stack of paperbacks that we told him we’d recycle. I’ve heard that a customer actually bit one of my coworkers.
And who am I to judge this old woman’s stuff? It isn’t like the books I read are particularly valuable. In the past month I have brought home Arthur Janov’s book on The Primal Scream, a D & D Dungeon Master’s guide, Job Interviews for Dummies, Introduction to Game Theory, the first three books in the Foxfire series, and a book on RV maintenance and repair. And I don’t even own an RV. And I know that most people don’t care about these books, and I know that I’m looking for something in these books that I may not find, and I know that I wouldn’t get much money if I ever tried to sell them.
But I got them used, which means someone else cared about them once, and the fact that they aren’t worth money does not mean they don’t have value. It’s a wonderful thing: this sharing of ideas, passed from reader to reader, the stories that give us identity. Because we need identity. Because it needs to come from somewhere, and I’m starting to understand that it doesn’t come from work or repetition; this store will live on long after I’m gone, people will continue to buy and sell. The customers of this store love the secondhand—it’s only the land of creation, of new product, that suffers from recycling. So which do we prefer: brand new paper smelling like nothing at all, or the wonderful smell of old books with yellowed pages, one of my favorite smells? If only that smell didn’t come from mold and rot.
 I’m looking at you, Faye and Jesse Kellerman. I’m looking at you, Carol Higgins and Mary Jane Clark. I’m also looking at Dirk Cussler, Christopher Tolkien, surely dozens more.