Wanted | Newberry


Sometimes people don’t pay attention to the pearls of wisdom I cast for their benefit. And sometimes they pay too much attention.

“I saved you a lot of time and trouble,” one of my volunteers told me recently. “I helped a lady throw away a bunch of old books.”

This is the same volunteer who once “saved” the Newberry Library from a donation of Ice Capades background music. I paused a moment before I said, “Oh?”

“Yes,” she said. “She’s been collecting books on the history of nursing for years and I knew you ask people not to send you old medical books.”

Another volunteer was helping sort books once, and knew I didn’t want textbooks. So she stacked up every book that had a scholarly title—the kind of thing a professor or a graduate student might read—and set them aside for the recycler.

See, there’s a difference between a book about medicine, and a medical book. The latter is usually a reference book: the Physicians’ Desk Reference (PDR) is a good example. If you’ve never seen one, this is a massive dictionary, with color pictures, showing every medicine prescribed in the United States. These can be useful (Have I mentioned how many times pills turn up at the bottom of boxes? Nice to know if I can just throw them away or if I need someone in a hazmat suit to dispose of them.) But after a few years, much of their information is irrelevant and I toss any edition more than five years old. I do NOT do this for all those diet books I get in, because even though they may be irrelevant, they are not OBVIOUSLY so.

It’s the same with law books. Ever hear the joke about the young man who wanted to be a lawyer and explained he hadn’t read much on theory of law or any of the Constitution, but he had memorized all the laws of the state? The examiner told him, “You fool, the legislature could meet tomorrow and repeal everything you know!” So we ask people not to send us law books—the statutes, those massive rows of books of case law—but to by all means send us books by Gerry Spence, Melvin Belli, and Louis Nizer on aspects of the law, and, of course, all those books on the lives of great men of law. (When I found someone had prepared a new edition of Yankee from Olympus, one of our most commonly donated books, I nearly wept. But I still accept it.)

As for textbooks, you ought to know them by touch alone. Textbooks mostly come with that slick cover that can repel globs of applesauce during the cafeteria food fight. A book called Salt Distribution in Early Merovingian France might be assigned in a class, but it will never be a textbook.

I suppose I should never have brought up the subject of what we don’t want. The idea of a Book Fair not wanting books takes people unaware and that they start to fret, judging their books more severely than I would. The suggestion that we do not sell Reader’s Digest Condensed Books has led a lot of people to assume that I don’t want Time-Life Books (we sell a lot of those) or other books published by Reader’s Digest. Here I am trying to save people the trouble of hauling in heavy stuff I’m going to give to recycling, and everyone starts thinking I’m a Book Snob.

That volunteer who helped toss away someone’s lifetime collection of books on nursing has brought me a lot of aged, worn, beat-up, discarded library books over the years, thinking they must be of great value. I have tried to tell her, as I have told you, faithful blog-reader, that the fact that a book is over ninety years old doesn’t make it valuable. She is always grateful for everything I can teach her about such things.

Just the other day, she came in and told me, “The lady with the nursing books has her husband’s collection of English first editions, but I told her not to worry about them, because you told me old books aren’t valuable.”

Somewhere in my magic there is a basic flaw. (The Wizard of Id) 

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