Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Drug on the Market

We used to call something "a drug on the market" when an item was so common that there were no takers for it. The expression implies that the item induces inertia in buyers, as some drugs do. I thought of this phrase yesterday as I was leaving the Rosenthal Library at Queens College. For over a decade Rosenthal has been the beneficiary of my efforts to reduce the large number of books I own. Every few months, I bring the library 30-40 books, whatever I can carry, like a pack mule; the librarians smile and chat me up, and some weeks later I receive a thank-you letter that I can use as proof of a charitable donation for my tax deductions.

Yesterday, however, I found Rosenthal unreceptive. The librarian explained to me that budget cuts (courtesy of Messirs Bloomberg & Cuomo) had reduced its staff and led to a cutback in operations so that the library no longer accepts book donations, nor does it hold its seasonal book sales, at which many of my old books no doubt found new owners. The acquisitions librarian, however, told me that he would make an exception for my used poetry books, because the library has no budget to buy new poetry books. As a reviewer, I often receive review copies of such books, so I'll continue to unload them at Rosenthal. My other old books are unwelcome.

Coincidentally, the neighborhood used-book store is also refusing book contributions. The store will still deal for signed first editions and other rareties in good condition, but it will no longer take used books for its $1 tables. Too many old folks are cleaning out their libraries and lugging faded tattered shopping bags full of faded tattered books to used-book stores and libraries, where the demand has diminished sharply. Every time you see people on their smart phones, tablets, or e-readers, you understand where book buyers have gone. The wonderful old books from Modern Library and Penguin that contributed so much to the education of generations of readers will fade away, like their beneficiaries, and few such books will be retrievable in digital form.

As a reader and a writer, and as a library donor, I am disheartened, while as an observer of the passing scene, I am unsurprised.

Oh, yes...if you'd like a grab bag of old books, please let me know.


  1. Years ago, a librarian told me that libraries are not museums; the books must circulate. Library sales are great events, but I remember also a pickup truck full of books going off to the landfill, after they didn't sell at the sale. The small town library had nowhere to keep them, no one bought them, and no one else would try to sell them. At a certain point, everything ends, I guess. We writers want words to last forever, but even they, don't.

  2. A sad commentary; I can't imagine prefering to read a book on a tablet; I'd miss the whole physical aspect of reading,even picking up a book's smell; on an I pad it becomes indistinguishable from holding any mechanical device .

  3. Thanks, Debby. Your anecdotes and comments lend support to the wistfulness we writers feel in this post-literate time.

    Thanks, Linda. I suspect most young people today are as comfortable with a mechanical device as we are with paper, and how many of them are reading fiction or poetry?

    And here we are by way of electronic devices.


  4. from a reader who gave me permission to post:

    I read your blog re old books and their demise. (Or at least their usefulness). If I were a wealthy person - and very clever - I would put my money on "old books." Buy them up and store them somewhere safe - perhaps cryopreserved would be the method of choice. Then in 25 or so years - perhaps 50 - I would take them out and open a "Used Book Store" throughout the world, of course - since countries and states would be passe, (Maybe call it the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams). Of course one would need a neat and compelling advertising campaign piped throughout the either of the universe with the sign "New Old Books. See these rare books in paper." Etc., etc. I think it has possibilities.
    I remember when people brought books to the Port Washington Public Library when I was working there and we used to get rid of them also. It was always considered a public relations thing and not anything that we really wanted to be bothered with - so much easier to order by review and with cataloguing and such in place. I, personally, love old books and will have to get rid of those that I have accumulated over the years......where oh where do old books go to die? Priscilla

  5. I'm happy to share that my 7.5 year old son loves books in real life and still gets excited about buying books in his school book fair....though, I can admit that he would also be thrilled if I allowed him my laptop to read.

  6. I was going to ask you if you wanted a few of my old books.