Sunday 15 September 2019

The symbolism of throwing books away

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Those who are genuine book lovers were shocked and appalled at the photos of books which had been unceremoniously dumped on the back of a truck to be thrown away. Luckily, the photos went viral and the truck carrying the historic books was eventually traced and they are now in the hands of Heritage Malta.

Also on the bright side was the swift public reaction: it is clear that although many used the phrases “we are a barbaric society” and “no wonder our culture has gone down the drain”, it gives me hope that enough people cared to spread the word about the books which were heading for the rubbish heap. The books have been saved, and that means that despite our constant self-flagellation about how Malta has gone to the dogs, I prefer to cling to the belief that the sensibilities of many people have not been completely eroded.

The person who took the photos and confronted the truck driver was told in no uncertain terms to get lost and mind his own business. In a nation which has become too complacent, it is a relief that this man did not simply shrug his shoulders and walk away with the usual apathy, but that he took the initiative to actually take photos and sent them to TVM who investigated the story and published the photos which then went viral. 

However, one cannot ignore the fact that someone asked for those books to be disposed of, and that they found a man with a truck willing to do the deed. What is worrying is that at no time in between these two decisions did it occur to either of them that what they were doing was wrong. For them, antique books dating back to the 17th century were simply imbarażż (rubbish), which for some reason needed to be cleared from the Franciscan friary in Valletta (they apparently belonged to the Santa Maria di Gesù Library).

As reported by The Times, it turns out that the order was given by a priest.

“The general content of the books was of a religious nature. They aren’t of any particular value. They are neither Melitensia nor of any particular historical value or otherwise,” Fr Richard Stanley Grech, Franciscan Provincial Minister said. “I have been informed that the only value the books have was as a collector’s item,” Fr Grech said. “Their monetary value doesn’t exceed €20 [each], while it would take a considerable amount of money to have them restored.”

He added, however, that the books were not meant to be thrown away but were supposed to have been transported elsewhere, but that the truck driver had not followed instructions “to put them neatly and carefully away in his truck in boxes.” Understandably, this disclaimer was not particularly believed by the general public.

The Archbishop and Culture Minister stepped in, and the books are now being inspected to evaluate their condition and whether they can be conserved.

Some might dismiss this as much ado about nothing, and take the nonchalant attitude of Fr Grech. But this all very much depends on what one means by the word ‘valuable’. Monetary value is one thing, while historic value is something to which no price tag can be attached. I suppose it also depends on one’s attitude to books and reading in general. If you think of them as dispensable items which are just causing clutter and accumulating dust, or at a par with knick knacks used to decorate your shelves, then you cannot possible appreciate their intrinsic worth. Old books, in particular, are an important recording of our past, a key to understanding what makes us a people.

Personally, as a child, I considered books as my friends. They were my escapism, where I could pretend I was someone else, delving into another world with my imagination, and getting away from the humdrum nature of ordinary life. I used to be so deeply immersed in a book that I would seriously not even hear my parents calling me to come to dinner, and they would have to physically come and find me, curled up with my precious book. “Didn’t you hear us calling you?” they would ask in exasperation, and I honestly could reply that no, I didn’t. Or if I did hear their voices it was more like a very vague echo from far away which I was mentally shutting out as firmly as I could in order not to lose the magic of the world I was connected to.

Our house was always filled with books and subscription magazines like Readers’ Digest and National Geographic but also more frivolous things like the iconic TV guide from which I gleaned all sorts of celebrity trivia. Reading was encouraged and considered essential and as a born bookworm, I did not have to be told twice to “go to your room and read”; in fact my punishments were more in the lines of “go to your room, but NO books”.

To this day I would never throw a book away, although I have donated many to second hand book shops and charity shops purely because of lack of space. On the other hand, I am very reluctant to lend books which I am particularly attached to, because there are several which, to my extreme disappointment and chagrin, I have never got back.

A love of books, and a love of reading in general cannot be easily explained: you either have it in you or you don’t. At a time when we are reading less actual books because of the accessibility of online articles and the mind-numbing addiction of social media, instilling a love of books in children should probably the number one priority of educators and parents. Without reading, their imagination cannot grow, their vocabulary is stunted and their grammar and syntax will remain limited to the short cut spelling used in chat messages. We can see the results with our own eyes of what happens when a nation does not read (not even in its own mother tongue), all over Facebook. The ability to communicate coherently is often reduced to the confines of emojis. When children and adolescents get used to getting by without reading actual books, standards in both languages will continue to plummet as anyone grading papers will tell you.

The symbolism of those books dumped so unfeelingly in that truck was like a dagger to the heart because it was yet another example of discarding what is ‘old’ because it is considered useless and has no real worth. Much like old houses in fact, which continue to be demolished as if they were lego bricks, with no sentiment or emotional attachment or any shred of respect towards history whatsoever.

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