Old Books: Keep or Pulp?

An upstairs bookcase at the Miller farmhouse was filled with old books, along with the stuff that H.L. Mencken termed “the sacred rubbish of the family.”

I’ve often repeated the maxim that the Millers never throw anything away. In this instance, however, my sister, Col. Peggy, and I were of like mind: to spare the next generation, we should cull the accumulation, deciding what to trash and what to treasure.

The impetus for doing so right now was that Honey and I were about to take another truckload of unwanted books to the recycler in Toronto, Ohio. For three years, Honey has organized huge charity book sales at Northside Church to support a mission hospital in Kenya. We regularly take books which haven’t sold to the pulp mill, along with those that will never sell (encyclopedias, for example).

It was hard at first to destroy books, but we’ve come to accept the necessity and even life-cycle aspect of it: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, pulp to pulp.

But, these bookcase books were “family,” an accumulation of a hundred years and more by one family in one house, with each generation hesitant to throw away that old hymnal, that tattered Mother Goose storybook, that Depression-era manual on farm electrification. What to keep, pass along to family, box up for the book sale, or send to the pulp mill?

What would you do with these?

“THE PRAYERS of Peter Marshall” (1954) – Minister Peter Marshall died at age 46; his widow, Catherine, wrote “A Man Called Peter.” It became a best-seller, and she kept on writing. Book sale.

“Arctic Adventure” (1935) – Written by a companion of a forgotten arctic explorer, Knud Rasmussen. Dad wrote “property of…” inside. Sorry, Dad. Pulp.

“Castaways in Lilliput” (1961) – A Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club monthly selection. Wow, I got a ton of these books and devoured them. Dated, but give it a chance: book sale.

“Japanese Fairy Tales” (1904) – A beautifully illustrated little book inscribed “Donated by Lester C. Miller.” Donated to whom, I don’t know, but it made its way back to my father. Nice book, keep.

“Tariri, My Story: From Jungle Killer to Christian Missionary” (1965) – Autobiography (of sorts, since Tariri was illiterate) of a Peruvian ex-headhunter, with lurid illustrations. A WVU “Beat Pitt” book marker was inside. Too odd to pulp. Book sale.

“Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) – This was the most popular book among scores of Westerns written by Zane Grey, many of which were made into movies. My mother’s first name was Arizona, though she went by her middle name, Lucille. I believe she was so-named because of the popularity of Zane Grey and the public’s fascination with the Southwest in that era. Remember the late Nevada Curry Laitsch of East Liverpool? Nevada was born in 1912, in Sias, W.Va. Arizona Lucille was born in 1918, 11 miles away at Hamlin. Mom loved Zane Grey, but he reads very dated now. Sorry, Mom. Book sale.

“The Enjoyment of Music: Shorter Edition” (1955) – A college text of my sister Queenie, whose name on the inside cover is below four previous student owners. The author explains in the preface that the full edition is better, but this version will suffice for a survey course. Pulp.

“Francis Kane’s Fortune” – (1890) I was ready to pulp this book, a cheaply printed great-grandma’s generation hardback novel for girls, until I googled it: a classic, they say; $30 on Amazon. The name Mildred Glass is written inside – likely a relative of Grandmother Edythe Glass Miller. Keep.

“THE SPEAKER’S Special Occasion Book” (1954) This is the type of reference book we automatically pulp because the internet has made them obsolete. Inside the cover I found the book was inscribed to me as a gift by my parents when I was 17. Tucked into the pages was a bigger surprise: nine notecards for a speech I apparently made defending free speech rights for the Communist Party USA.

I showed the notecards to my wife. “I don’t remember you being a communist in high school,” she said.

“It must have been a debate club thing,” I said. “But you have to give me credit for defending the rights of a dirty bunch of reds.”

I will put this volume back in the bookcase and leave the notecards inside, running a risk that some descendant will find them and believe that Grandpa Fred was a Red.

When Col. Peggy and I were done, we had found a few items to send to family, such as Aunt Dorothy’s college biology notebook, and we hopefully saved the books with literary, historical and family value.

A couple of boxes of books were set aside for our next book sale in November, and a couple more were added to the truckload that Honey and I took to the pulp mill at Toronto the next day. We were paid $26 (866 pounds at three cents per pound), but better recycled than landfilled, right?