Second Thoughts on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, or When Books Die

Second Thoughts on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, or When Books Die September 14, 2018

It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I love books. (Movies too, but that’s less relevant now.) Which makes it a challenge when something happens to a book. Not in book, though that can be a challenge too. I mean when something happens to the physical object that is a book. Like for example when you’re reading a used copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and every time you turn the page, that page falls out of the binding.

This is a tragedy of epic proportions. It is also something that Christians should think about philosophically, theologically, and practically. After all, we are a people of the Book who believe that God speaks to the world primarily through His revealed Word. Every book we write, print, and read is a type of this great truth, so what happens to the physical objects is something that matters.

And yet, this is something which we rarely think about at all. I suspect there are several reasons for this. First is our very real wish to avoid idolatry. Books are types, but they are not to be revered or worshiped. Second is our culture’s inherent Gnosticism and disdain of the physical. If even human beings are mutable and can be whatever their inner desires tell them they are, why should it matter if something so common as a book falls apart? Third, books are largely available and cheap. In the case of this particular book. it is cheap on Amazon, cheaper from a used bookstore, or free to read online. So what’s the big deal?

Certainly we should avoid idolatry. This issue merit’s some thought, but neither obsession nor more thought than more important issues. And certainly we should avoid Gnosticism, while still recognizing that the content of the book is more important than its physical matter. And of course the fact that something is common and available doesn’t make it unimportant. Oxygen is common and available, but it is something that we have a vested interest in reflecting on at least occasionally.

Anyway, assuming it matters at least as much (or slightly less than) I think it does, here are a few questions I came up with while thinking about what to do with my trashed book. I should note two things: 1) this assumes that the damage to the book is catastrophic, and that without repairs the book is unusable as a book (so minor damage doesn’t count); and 2) I’m leaving out things like repurposing an old book and turning it into something new, which I have very mixed thoughts about. With those caveats, a few questions for reflection when thinking about disposing of a book:

  1. Did you mark up the book? (Underlining, notes, etc)
  2. Is the book old? (At least a a century.)
  3. When the book was new, was it a solid and/or attractive volume? If so, will fixing it leave it more unattractive than it was as an old book?
  4. Is the book unique? (That is, if it is a translation, is it one no longer easily available? Is it an edition that is no longer available? etc)
  5. Is it part of a set or series which you have more of?
  6. Can the book be easily repaired? Can it be done cheaply? Can you do it? (Some books just need to be put into something like a Bible cover, but of course those aren’t necessarily cheap either.)
  7. Was this book a meaningful gift?

I think out of this list the only one that should automatically determine whether or not a book gets saved is 1). The rest are important, but need to be balanced and weighed against each other. In general, I’d say that aside from 1) you need at least three of the various questions to be answered with some form of “yes” before even considering saving a severely damaged book.

Unfortunately, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea didn’t make it and I had to dispose of it. Which raises the further question of what the best way is to dispose of a book. I don’t know that there is ever a good way to do this—again, it’s always a tragedy. But of the available options, what is the best way? Thoughts are most welcome here. (I’ve already disposed of this particular book, but it’s an important enough issue to merit further consideration…)

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO.

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