Disappearing Ink

What will happen to all the books?

It's not so surprising that the destruction of books began around the same time as their creation — although (way) back in the day, it was about quality rather than quantity.

Religious materials were ordered to be burned by rulers during times of war and the Inquisition, and the practice was followed by the Nazis, who burned works by Jewish authors, by Japanese troops who set entire Chinese libraries on fire during World War II and by Senator Joseph McCarthy's American followers who burned literature he deemed supportive of Communism.

Because of this history and the fantasy worlds that the authors of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 imagined — futuristic societies that institutionalized book-burning — generations have been raised to associate the destruction of a book with censorship and ignorance.

ASU archivist and head of the Department of Archives and Special Collections Robert Spindler
Jamie Peachey
ASU archivist and head of the Department of Archives and Special Collections Robert Spindler
Healthy Cooking Circa 1945(/i>, book artwork by Casey Curran
Courtesy of Casey Curran
Healthy Cooking Circa 1945(/i>, book artwork by Casey Curran

Even in the digital age, some online crusaders are on a mission to permanently delete content, a situation often cited as a reason to keep physical copies safe and preserved in libraries and universities around the world.

Before we clicked buttons and thumbed over screens to turn pages on our digital copies of books (and long before we started to chuck them in the recycling bin), words were inked on papyrus, and then on parchment and paper for those who could afford to read. Knowledge literally was power, and its physical form was handmade, expensive and scarce.

The dawn of universities brought teachers and students who required literature in quantity. Printmaker Aldus Manutius began publishing collections of small, less-expensive books. He was on a mission to make content available to the general public, and his invention was the beginning of what we now know as the paperback.

Books were handwritten, and illustrations manually printed, until German printmaker Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which kicked off the mass production of books on paper and, over the next few centuries, introduced literature to countless readers.

Because of Gutenberg, books no longer were just objects for the rich, powerful and religious, which was great news for the common man but a huge threat for traditional scribes and printmakers. (And if you're at all familiar with publishing history, you'll know that threat was echoed only by the invention of the typewriter, the word processor, the scanner and the e-book.)

The printed copy went digital in the early 1970s, when an American techie named Michael Hart re-typed the Declaration of Independence, uploaded it to a server, and sent it to a few of his co-workers. His goal quickly became to digitize all books with expired copyrights (at that time, anything published before 1923), and though Hart died in 2009, his Project Gutenberg still is running with hundreds of volunteers who furiously type and upload to the server every day.

"Throughout the history of publishing, there has been no sense of tradition," says author Robin Sloan. "The production of the printed book was all chaos, competition, stealing ideas, shutting each other out of markets."

Sloan's a self-described media inventor who's had gigs with Poynter, Current TV and Twitter predicting the future of media. In 2012, he released his first novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.

Sloan says he dove into research on the history of publishing in the process of writing his book, which examines traditional type, underground printing presses and the future of bookstores through a fictional lens.

"Publishing was about the right way to do things — mixing ink, cutting type and arguing how to put it all together," he says. "It sounds exactly like the Internet. And while I never see a total and complete end to the printed book, I think e-books will continue to face the same sort of challenges and even newer forms of competitive technology in the future."

One thing is certain: No one will ever take a guillotine to an e-book.

That's the name for the machine used to slice the spine off a hardcover book — the first step in the recycling process.

The modern-day book "beheader" is much more industrial than its murderous ancestor. It looks like a large office printer/scanner with an adjustable blade at the top that can be lifted for a book's (or multiple books') height. When it's in action, a book is lined up under the blade on the guillotine's flat surface, alongside and on top of other hardbacks.

A large crank is turned and a plastic window closes to protect the machine's operator. The blade drops.

With a large crack, the books' spines are severed from the paper. The front and back covers fall to the sides, and the hardback material is tossed into the garbage. The book's pages then can be recycled alongside paperback books.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that in early 2012, paper made up more than 40 percent of a typical landfill's contents, a proportion that employees at the North Gate Transfer Station in Phoenix are working to reduce with limited budgets and a changing culture.

Recycling programs across the country accept and process paperback books fairly easily, but because of the way hardbacks are produced, their destruction is a complicated (and often skipped) process. The landfill is easier.

Facilities with enough guillotines to destroy hardback books in large quantities are difficult to find and often charge per cut, which many recycling programs can't afford. If you're looking for a DIY option, the standard FedEx Office location usually has a guillotine that can cut through a couple of hardbacks for $1.50 a slice, employees say.

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I am going to write a fucking story for the Dallas Observer. You people know who I am. 

O.K. Theseus: Big roads (Interstates, Tolls High 5, eternal beltline) are how some dispersed cities manage "minority growth"


I still order books online and support the local secondhand book store when I go into town... A book I had been looking for since back in the mid 1990's became available as a down load for Kindle or a reprint by a Canadian company for $43... I chose to pay $73 for a first edition and in one week it had appreciated in value to over $200 and now only 3 months later is being sold for $400.59 dollars.... I wish my other investments were performing as well.   

TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

It's pretty hard to get all teary eyed about zillions of pages of unsold Shades of Grey, Dean Koontz or Stephen King paperbacks heading to the shredder.

Probably the most noble use that paper-fiber will ever serve is cradling a dozen eggs home from the market for someone. 


As an author with a foot in both worlds--I write large illustrated coffee table books and work as an editor for an EBook company--I see some interesting issues.  For convenience and for books I just want to read, nothing beats an e-book. But you cannot share or loan an e-book. And it is hard (though not impossible) to autograph one.  I often want to share books I love, and cannot do that if I only have the e-book version. Thus I often end up buying two copies--one paper and one electronic--of books I really like. One to read and one to share and get autographed.