Dead Books Club

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hasn’t said what it plans to do with all the copies of Imagine, Jonah Lehrer’s sullied best seller on the science of creativity, that it has yanked from shelves. But most book people agree that the copies will eventually be pulped, or dissolved into a milky liquid and reconstituted as clean paper. In this regard, at least, Imagine has plenty of company. Every year, millions of books are sent to the “cruel machines,” as one young editor calls them, simply because their sales didn’t meet projections. The process is tidily symmetrical: from the vat to the store and back to the vat.

What eureka moment gave us book recycling? The details are forgotten, but we know that in the early seventeenth century, when the cost of paper was astronomically high, proto-publishers ripped old pages from unwanted books and used them as endleaves. Adam Smyth, a senior lecturer in literature at the University of London, notes that a mention of the lost Shakespeare play Love’s Labour’s Won was discovered inside a copy of the 1637 text Certaine Sermons.* “All of which suggests,” Smyth says, that “an early Jonah Lehrer would have quickly seen his pages binding the boards of someone else’s book.”

Between those ancient repurposed pages and modern pulping came another stroke of inspiration: the invention of wood-based paper. It used to be that paper was made from rags, a shortage of which gripped the Western world in the early nineteenth century. In Nova Scotia, a young logger and poet named Charles Fenerty proposed a solution: Why not make paper out of wood? (Rags have to be made; trees grow.) “I entertain an opinion that our common forest trees, either hard or soft wood, but more especially the fir, spruce, or poplar, on account of the fibrous quality of their wood, might easily be reduced by a chafing machine, and manufactured into paper of the finest kind,” he wrote in 1844.

Fenerty died in 1892 without ever having secured intellectual property rights to, or a following for, his notion. It took German mechanic Friedrich Gottlob Keller to actually develop a machine that realized Fenerty’s vision. Keller sold his invention to an entrepreneur; a patent was granted; an industry was born.

For a while, the process was unidirectional. Wood was pulped into paper for books, but books were rarely turned back into blank sheets. That changed during the First World War, when the U.S. government, hard up for raw materials, inaugurated the Waste Reclamation Service. As of last count, according to the Green Press Initiative, about 13 percent of the paper fiber in new books is from old books and other recycled sources.

But not every pulping plant is equipped to complete the cycle. “Regular paper will go back into liquid relatively easily,” Thomas E. Amidon, the director of the Empire State Paper Research Institute in Syracuse, told a reporter by phone. Books, on the other hand, are held together with glue and binding. Then there are the covers to contend with. “You need a machine,” he said, “that can screen out the chunks.” A voice was heard in the background: a colleague. Amidon excused himself. He had a book proof to look over. “We’re hopeful of its not being pulled—or pulped,” he said, and hung up.

*This article has been corrected to show that Love’s Labour’s Won was mentioned in Certaine Sermons, not excerpted.

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Dead Books Club