By Elizabeth Limbach
I have a few questions for a certain Mr. Tom Wayne of Kansas City, Missouri, a bookstore owner who has taken to burning his 20,000-book collection because he “couldn’t even give them away.” I’ll get to these in a moment.
It’s easy to see that the bonfires aren’t just to warm his hands. Wayne plans on burning volumes to make a point about the increasing disregard for literature and written work that he sees as rampant in our society.
He took the fact that no one wanted to buy or inherit his collection as a sign of our country’s divorce from printed culture; an inevitable transition that has been apparent ever since children began gazing at boob-tubes instead of engaging in paperbacks. And, as confirmed by the tendency to look to the Internet for news and substitute classics with SparkNotes, this evolution is undeniable.
However, as Wayne clearly believes with conviction, there is something incomparable, unmatchable and even sacred about books — both in their physicality and in the role they have come to play in our lives. And, yes, we may be straying from a true appreciation of written work. And, yes, this is something that will be sad, dangerous and yet unavoidable.
One would think that, in combating this decline, spreading these undervalued books to places in need of literary resurgence would be more productive than destroying such a valuable collection.
So, Mr. Wayne, now for my “burning” questions:
What about the slew of underfunded schools in this country of ours? Did you ask them if they’d take your books?
According to the Heart of America Foundation, most schools house an average of 18 library books per student. However, in low-income areas the average can be less than one per pupil. I’m sure the Foundation’s Books From The Heart project would have been delighted to distribute your books to these areas.
Also, according to the group, 61 percent of children in low-income families have no books in their home at all. Did you think of them when you burned all those children’s books? An organization called First Book aims “to give children from low-income families the opportunity to read and own their first new books.” Perhaps you overlooked this option in haste to make your point.
What about the New Orleans’ libraries, whose shelves remain empty after Hurricane Katrina swept their titles away almost one year ago? Did you ask them to relieve you of your mountainous collection?
The National Education Association’s Book Across America campaign is laboring to revive public and school libraries across the Gulf Coast that suffered damage from Katrina. Perhaps you overlooked this organization in the midst of your frustration.
Did you try eBay to rid of those rarities you’re reported to possess? Surely some book fanatics exist someplace in cyberspace.
Did you ring up every struggling church, Red Cross, shelter and orphanage, and ask if they could use a few?
While Wayne does have a point — a truly discouraging one at that — about the dying appreciation for and declining reliance on printed work, his efforts are counterproductive and hypocritical.
Historically, books have been burned to aid in the destruction of culture (think Nazi Germany). So how burning his books will save America’s book culture, rather than contribute to eradicating it, remains a mystery to me.