Sunday, January 27, 2008

Where Have All the Words Gone? Long Time Passing...

Did you know that if you drive on the M6 toll road you are spinning along on a road of dreams? I could put it a different way: you are driving right over dashed romantic passions. Jo Moran tells us that pulped books are used to make pellets to bind blacktop aggregate, that 45,000 of them are required for one mile of road, and this particular stretch (still magically empty when I drove on it last summer) used up two-and-a-half-million Mills and Boon novels.

I'm not quite sure from this article what Moran's attitude is to the overproduction of books. He begins by attributing it to a 'sacralization' of books (Pierre Bayard's term) - 'from reading groups to bibliotherapy' to Gordon Brown's National Year of Reading which champions reading as a social force for good, although he notes in passing that 'because books are so cheap to make, and the rewards of bestsellerdom so huge ... overproduction makes economic sense'. He seems to imply that schemes like Brown's contribute to the wastefulness: 'Since such campaigns are largely aimed at people who do not read, it is quite a leap to expect them suddenly to be passionate about it.'

Yet when he says, 'We are too sentimental about the physical entity of the book' he is referring to those who express horror at the idea of pulping books, and it becomes an argument for pulping, and potentially by extension for the system which leads to it. And as an author he purports to be quite sanguine and indeed sees a kind of romance in it:
There is something pleasingly melancholic about converting unread books into the wordless anonymity of a road, like having your ashes scattered in a vast ocean. If I can't be a road, I would settle for artificial snow (also made of fibre pellets) falling gently in a Christmas film. At least being shredded is clean and conclusive.

And, agreeing with Pierre Bayard that reading is not always easy or pleasurable, he concludes pragmatically that 'it is perfectly understandable that so many books remain unread'.

Before the end, though, he says this: 'I steer clear of bookshops at this time of year - the chaotic piles of discounted titles depress me. They are where unwanted words go to die.'

Lurking in those two fraught sentences is the real reason for overproduction (glanced at in his earlier reference to bestsellerdom): not the overvaluing of books as a social and educative force but the overvaluing of books as money-making commodities (they are those throwaway Mills and Boons in the M6 toll road blacktop, after all).

Next time you take a spin down the motorway, give a thought to what's beneath the wheels: dead words.


NMJ said...

Hey Elizabeth, I really like your phrase 'dead words' - but what a depressing thought that words you laboured over for years can end up dead, or turned into tarmac!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi nmj.
Yes, it is depressing...

lloydmintern said...

I find this (hard to believe) piece of information sort of exhilarating.

It reminds me of this quote: "Hands already on the silver wheel, his black tires lacerate the highway" (from the poem THE BLUE SEDAN)

Vehicles that drive on such highways are liable, and bound!, to transition into riding in the "tiretracks in the sky".

Laura Callier - Smells Like Green Spirit Blog said...

Very interesting! I'd wondered where the pulped books went. An overhaul of the antiquated return policy of bookstores to publishers definitely needs to take place to reduce book waste and the need for all the pulping! Robert Miller, stepping down from Hyperion suggested putting books in stores on a non-returnable basis, as you may have heard...and I wonder about the future of print-on-demand kiosks in relation to making the book industry less wasteful.

Thank you for your lovely post.