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.

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, book artwork by Casey Curran
Courtesy of Casey Curran
Healthy Cooking Circa 1945, book artwork by Casey Curran

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.

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 only echoed 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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What a great-comprehensive article! Bravo, Claire!


Bookmans does have six locations and still loves books.  But it's un-realistic to expect them to say afloat with just book sales.  I'm disappointed to hear this, I know for a fact that the Mesa location does everything they can to recycle and donate to keep books (and other merchandise) out of dumpsters...


I have worked in the book industry for 11 years and have a personal library of over 5,000 books at home so it is safe to say that I love books. However, all this article does is lament and whine about the fate of books while completely ignoring the underlying problems. With the rise of e-readers millions of people who formerly supported the physical book industry have now completely abandoned it. This has many effects on the book industry but most notably it forces mainstream bookstores to downsize (Barnes & Noble) or go out of business (Borders) and forces used bookstores (like Changing Hands or Bookmans – a company which this article slanders) to look for different ways to make money besides relying on falling book sales. Hence, Barnes & Noble has invested tons of money into it's Nook e-readers & has to close 200 stores in the next decade and stores like Bookmans have to act like they would “much rather would have your board games and your cat trinkets than your hardbacks”. Blaming the retailers for this situation is moronic. We live in a market economy which means if the demand isn't there, retailers have to change or die. Smart retailers like Barnes & Noble and Bookmans are trying their best to adapt to a world where selfish and short sighted people would rather download “books” (that they don't actually own, it's more like they are renting) than support a beautiful physical medium that has been with us since the dawn of civilization. If you don't like seeing books die than ditch your e-reader and visit your local bookstore.

Addendum : Mass Market Paperback books are actually designed by the publisher with the knowledge that they'll have their covers stripped off and they'll be recycled. They are the closest thing the publishing industry has to a “disposable” book. This is no secret to anyone who has ever worked in the book industry. Also the author's claim that the stripped book notice was“ often was ignored and eventually was phased out” is a blatant falsehood. No reputable bookseller would attempt to sell a stripped book. This is not to say that it hasn't happened before, but it is very uncommon. Also, the “stripped book” notice still appears in mass market paperbacks printed to this day. It has not been phased out.

Afterthought : While outside the scope of this article it is important to note that grocery stores and restaurants throw out millions of tons of food while 49 million Americans struggle with hunger. If booksellers are to be lambasted for throwing out books why do food merchants get a free pass for doing the same thing, especially since they have the potential for saving human lives?


They want to get rid of books because they are harder to control and rewrite the content of them.  If they are all online, they can change the language of them as they so desire.


What a remarkable essay!  And no comments as of yet?  You have described one of the most profound changes in our civilization to take place in our own time, the altered, possible reduced ability to vet and share information that is worth sharing.  

This article deserves a Pulitzer.