Burn After Reading: The Lifecycle of Books

Being well-read has always been a praise-worthy trait. Until, perhaps, now. Considering the increasing concern over the environment, the impact of your page-turning is fuel-burning. Without even taking into account the impact of the production of paper, the printing process and transport, existing books in stores and in our homes continue to have a questionable impact on the environment over their life-cycles.

Most people prefer buying new

Hundreds of new best sellers pop up like dandelions each passing year. 73% of people surveyed for this article about their book-buying habits report buying their books new. Who can blame them with the latest thriller-turned-hollywood-flick, a new release from a best-selling author, and the most buzz worthy celebrity book call to them from the book store? We all run out to buy them, not wanting to wait to check out a buzz-worthy title from the library. However, for the average buyer, and for the average book, reading through once is enough.

Boudica Books, a used bookstore in Orillia Ontario, is downsizing due to lack of steady business

Which begs the question: what happens after all is “read and done?”

Fortunately, only 1% of people surveyed responded by saying that they take their books to the dump or put them in the trash – 10% recycle their books, a much more environmentally responsible method of disposing of a book. Fortunately 78% reported donating their unwanted books as their main method of disposal.

Although the same subjects surveyed responded positively with regards to their opinions about buying used books (80% responded with “yay”) only 14% reported actually buying their books used. Furthermore, 92% of people surveyed considered themselves to be concerned about the environment.

So… why the impulse to buy new?

Some of the answer lies in how customers perceive book shops with regards to title availability. Coveted titles may not be available until someone brings in a copy- if the title is a new release, readers may not have the patience to wait for the book to hit the store.

Many people have never considered the environmental impact

Another answer may lie in the fact that the majority of people surveyed are unsure whether the mainstream book industry is doing its best to be environmentally friendly. 44% of survey takers reported not having considered the issue of the environmental impact of their book consumption and felt intrigued about the issue after responding. An additional 20% of people reported having been already aware of the issue and being concerned about it. These statistics show that the environmental impact of book stores has yet to become a “hot topic” in the ever-warming climate of environmental discourse. Customers just don’t know the extent of the damage.

So, why not used?

While some may view used bookstores as a place where you can only find old and out-of-date books, the owner of Book Review, a used book shop in Orillia, Ontario offers a different angle:

“The other [mainstream] stores can’t carry as much as we’d like to see, they’re just small stores, even at Indigo… they’re selling the best sellers and the latest books, anything else, you have to order.”

She continued to disagree with popular notions of used bookstores. If variety is indeed what is craved by customers, variety is at the very heart and soul of used bookstores. “We carry everything… we carry mostly paperback books but as long as the author has been writing and [remains] popular, we carry them.” They offer anything from best-sellers to rare books, and even books that are out of print and would normally have to be hunted down online. Furthermore, used bookstores offer customers a chance to be exposed to titles and genres that big brand stores can’t offer. For example, small town used book shops are a great source for shopping for local authors and local history titles.

Used bookstores also offer something that mainstream bookstores can’t- a chance to exchange your unwanted books for new books. Many stores offer customers either cash for their books, or payment in the form of store credit. While the amount received for a book brought in not be exactly equal to the amount originally paid, the total gain of discarding or recycling a book is precisely zero dollars. So customers are, in a sense, getting “something for nothing.”

Another negative-positive flip  of buying used books is that they have been used.

There needs to be a shift in people’s attitudes with regard to what makes an object “valuable.” The idea of something being shiny and new has long stuck with us when we are out shopping, but “something new” may never grow into “something old”- as it may become discarded.

Therefore, why not start valuing used books for their “used-ness?” Getting a lot of mileage out of a car, having a treasured piece of jewelry – why not also consider books in this light?A book is not something that needs to be tossed after one use. The beauty of a story is it can be repeated over and over and over – as long as its physical state is decent and someone wants to read it, the functional purpose of a book never expires. As for the physical state, rest assured, owners of used book shops are insistent upon accepting books that are in good condition.

Although buying a used book may not offset the existence of a new copy of the same title, changing our attitudes towards buying used books is a step in the right direction to grabbing the attention of big-book chains and publishers. Accountability has become a major focus of both consumers and companies in the digital age, as consumer feedback (and solidarity) is more readily available than ever before via social media. As long as we’re talking company-consumer interaction, let’s reflect for a moment: how much do we know about the ecological lifecycle of the book? Where do they come from, and where do they go? The only way to get these answers is to- get this- read more closely into them.

About Nicole Percy 3 Articles
Nicole Percy is a student in the Sheridan Journalism New Media Program.

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