The only really terrible thing about working at a library is something most people don’t know about. It’s a necessary evil that can sour the stomach of any true book lover: weeding. This is an ugly term for the process of removing books whose checkout rates have flatlined, in order to make room for shiny new books.
Don’t get me wrong; I like shiny new books.
But just because people, with our myriad choices and fickle memories, have forgotten a book’s existence, that doesn’t make it a “weed.” If a botanical metaphor must be applied, then I prefer to think of the forgotten books as bulbs, the dark shelves like earthen strata. There they wait, pressed between the dust and humus of other pages, dormant, anticipating the light of a bedside lamp and the warmth of human hands.
I’ve blogged about my dismay at weeding before. I feel a tenderness for the books as objects, and a terrible sorrow for them when I see them on the weeding cart. All of these books that I will never read, I’ll think. Books that no one will ever read again!
This is not strictly true; most of the books are sold in a semi-annual book sale which raises funds for the library. But for reasons that are a mystery to me, perfectly serviceable books will on occasion end up in the recycling bins. On the whole this is not too upsetting; employees are permitted to rummage through these bins and take whatever they like. Among the treasures I’ve recovered are a first-edition hardback of Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal, a library edition of Lolita, and a tattered copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, which is more special for having been oft-mended and much fondled.
It relieves me to think that these books will not be ground into pulp and turned into toilet paper. Or whatever becomes of recycled books.
But there is nevertheless something sad about a book being removed from circulation. I don’t own many books compared to other writers and book-lovers precisely because I prefer library books to personal copies. Library books are alive somehow. There is something sort of thrilling — even kind of sexy — about the idea that a book I took to bed with me and read while propped on two pillows, wearing my purple satin nightgown — of that book now being in the hands of a complete stranger. Where are they reading it? What are they wearing? We may pass one another in the stacks and never know that we each wear beneath our clothes — beneath our very skin — the same story.
Which brings me to Nicholson Baker.
One of the librarians approached me the other night. She was performing a kind of triage on a cart of weeded books, trying desperately to save a few.
“Have you read Nicholson Baker?” she asked. I said that I hadn’t. “I think you’d like him,” she said.
“What does he write about?” I asked.
“Sex, I think.” She plopped a stack of books down beside me. “I may be going out on a limb here, but it seems like your thing.” I opened the cover of the first book, Vox. The flap described two people trying to forge a connection via a phone sex chat line. It did sound like my thing, actually. I gave it the page 69 test.
I don’t remember if there was anything sexy on page 69 (and that’s not really the point). All I remember were beautiful words. Luminous words. Words curled up at their edges ever-so-slightly by irony. The book flared to life right there in my hands, right there in the middle of the story.
I checked the books out, thereby rescuing them from the Cart of Doom. And then I went home and devoured them.
Only a few pages into Vox, I realized what a great service the librarian and I had performed for humanity. You see, Nicholson Baker isn’t just a good writer. He writes in this beautiful, quiet way, and reading his books is like hearing a man with a pleasant voice and a good vocabulary speak amiably about numerous things. His descriptions are so well-rendered that the most prosaic events — a pool of moonlight on the floor, the mournful sound of a freight train horn, two lonely people trying to share a long-distance orgasm — become exquisite little unfoldings.
Nicholson Baker should never, ever be on the weeding cart.
And he won’t, not if I can help it. A few days later, I returned Vox to the library, but I didn’t just check it in, I put it on the Staff Picks display as one of my selections, ensuring more checkouts, and the book’s continued life in our library. Even now somebody could be reading it (in the bathtub?), sharing it with me.
Maybe even you.