The Three Rs

Carved Book Landscape by Guy Laramee
Carved Book Landscape: book sculpture by Guy Laramee

Once upon a time we knew (however much we circumvented their purpose by misspelling them) exactly what the Three Rs were: Reading, (w)Riting and ‘Rithmetic. (And yes, spellcheck has helpfully underlined for me Rs, Riting and Rithmetic.) Nowadays primary school kids know all about targets for literacy and numeracy, but the Three Rs mean something different: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. I’ve been thinking recently about how they might apply to books, and have been coming up with some conundrums.


When it comes to reducing we’re told to “buy only what you need.” Hmm. Do I need books? Philosophically, yes. Do I need that particular book? The one that sits temptingly on a bookshop shelf? Maybe not. There’s more: “Reduce unnecessary waste by avoiding those pointless purchases. Items that rarely get used can be borrowed or shared with others.”

Pointless purchases?!

Let’s take a detour around that for a moment. Borrowing? Well I do go to the library to borrow some books, particularly those I’m unlikely to want to keep. And I do pass on, share in fact, books that I’m unlikely to read again. So I guess that I’m doing my bit for reduction. But already I’m feeling sorry for authors. If I borrow from the library then at least authors in the UK stand to gain something — a pittance, perhaps — from Public Lending Right payments. But if I borrow from friends those authors will definitely miss out. And if I buy from a charity shop, yes, somebody gains but it’s not going to be an author, is it. *Dilemma alert.*

And then there’s reusing books. “Many items found around the home can be used for different purposes. So before you throw those items away, think about how they can be reused.” Do you reuse books? Do you drill a hole in a pile of books, pass an electric cord through it and repurpose them as a table lamp? Do you glue old hardbacks together and turn them into a doorstop, or recast them as steps to reach those awkward places near the ceiling? Beautiful as they seem, and works of art as so many of them are, where do you stand vis-à-vis book sculptures? Do you not at some level feel disturbed by them? Are they not, in a way, sacrilegious?

Luckily http://www.recycling-guide.org.uk gives us a way out of this moral impasse by advising us to Donate Old Clothes and Books: “Other people can reuse your unwanted clothes and books when you donate them to charity shops.” (But see above, the *dilemma alert.*)

Finally, recycling. Let’s be clear about this. Recycling means separating the product into its constituent materials. Bluntly, that means destroying books so that not only are they not worth the paper they’re printed on but they no longer are the paper they were once printed on. Do you get me?

But paper is paper and can go into the appropriate recycling receptacle; or it can be composted. “Composting is a process where waste degrades into compost, which can then be used in your garden to help it grow.” It’s not generally advised, I understand, because of the chemicals in printing ink, but in moderation I don’t it’s dangerous. (We used to compost old newspapers and they never did us any harm. I hope.) But a little bit of me dies when I think of ripping up an old paperback, even one that isn’t very good. *Dilemma alert.*

FSC-LOGOI’m on safer ground with this advice: “Buy products that have been made from recycled material. You can tell if a product is eco-friendly by looking at the label on the packaging.” Many publishers subscribe to the FSC’s “tick tree” logo: this is used on product labels to indicate whether products are certified under the Forest Stewardship Council system. “When you see the FSC logo on a label you can buy timber and other wood products, such as paper, with the confidence that you are not contributing to the destruction of the world’s forests.”

These then are my conundrums to do with the Three Rs of books. My main one is that provocative phrase “pointless purchases”. I’m no longer a compulsive purchaser (even though I remain a compulsive browser), and I’ve been working hard with the Three Ds: decluttering, discarding, downsizing. Now when I purchase a book it is never pointless. I want it, in a sense I need it. But not everyone (and that includes nearest and dearest) would agree with me. And that’s a dilemma that I shall have to work out for myself.

I foolishly promised photos of my newly painted and
reorganised bookshelves following a house move.
These aren’t them

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14 thoughts on “The Three Rs

  1. earthbalm

    I feel just the same about books, CDs and guitars. There’s always a dilemma alert whenever I buy or dispose of these items. At its simplest level: If you always recycle books and CDs by donating, where does an author or composer’s revenue come from?
    I’ve watched many videos of guitar building and must admit that I find it a very wasteful process even if the end products are works of art (I’m thinking mainly individual luthiers there). It seems to me every pro has a con and every con a pro. So, perhaps I should put a hold on buying but then (by extension) my favourite artists and writers won’t be able to earn a living.
    Oh! What to do..?

    1. On a different scale altogether is the dilemma with population growth, improved health and extended lifespans — eradicating diseases is well and good but ‘natural wastage’ is thereby reduced, another billion humans come into being and the strain on nature’s resources gets closer to breaking point. Where is the sensible discussion about how we deal with it, and how ordinary people be involved?

      I suppose, put that way, my obsession with books rather fades into irrelevance …

      1. earthbalm

        I’m of the opinion that there are simply too many people for this planet. There are many solutions but none of them is without ethical dilemmas. Unfortunately, nature has a means of solving the problem periodically in the form of epidemics and pandemics and in the human in-built drive to make war with itself. I do worry about the world my sons (and the children I teach) will inhabit. I don’t sit on the fence but every solution I see comes with its own major problems.
        At least it’s Sunday, the day of rest today. 🙂

        1. Speaking as a child of the 60s we shared the same anxieties as you do about unsustainability, engendering offspring in a Cold War climate and polluting our world. We haven’t done a very good job of rectifying that, have we?

          1. earthbalm

            Not a good job at all. We were pulled probably into the same dominant behaviour patterns that everybody followed. More immediate threats to family stability and living a comfortable lifestyle took over, certainly so in my case.

  2. Lynn Love

    This is so hard! I have no problem preaching about idiotic consumerism – buying pointless tat that adds nothing to our lives and breaks quickly or is never used. And my house is filling up with stuff – though much of it in the kitchen as husband has got into cooking recently and we now have pestle and mortars, food processors, whisks, coffee grinders and enough jars of spices to make a Tudor adventuror’s ruff stiffen. So I’d like to declutter.
    But books? They’re not clutter. And as you point out – and as we’ve discussed before – if we buy all our books second hand, we might save the planet in the long term but in the short term, we’re driving the job title ‘author’ to the point of extinction.
    I suspect there is no right answer. We’ll just have to muddle along and hope for the best – that’s what I usually do anyway!
    Very interesting, well written and entertaining post, Chris 🙂

    1. Thanks, Lynn, I try to provoke thought, but heaven forfend that I come up with practical answers. I joke with Emily about how I’ll part with more books if she parts with half a dozen cushions, but I have a feeling I’ll never win this particular argument …

          1. Haha! Kind of like that idea. Though they’d be murder in the summer. I remember sitting on the leather seats of my dad’s Beatle when we were kids. Short skirts plus hot leather equals unpleasant memories 🙂

  3. Another way of recycling is to give your books to an op shop or sell them to a secondhand shop. I buy almost all my books through online secondhand bookshops. There’s one called Better World Books that donates books or part of its profit to worldwide literacy programs. You can donate or sell books to them. And I think it’s really important to support your local library – these public services are dwindling away and everything is for-profit, so we need to demonstrate that we use public libraries.
    Love the book sculpture!

    1. I can’t take credit for the book sculpture, Gert, but I too liked the mountains made from books!

      Good advice about Better World Books, I’ll look that out. And I’m on the Friends of Crickhowell Library committee which is hoping to help positively manage the change that is inevitably going to affect local libraries with the current round of austerity cuts.

  4. I don’t have a problem with giving to or buying books from used bookstores. No the author may not make money off a sale, but it gives someone a chance to purchase a book they otherwise could not afford. And, who knows, the reader may find a “new” author to like when purchasing a used book and will gladly seek out more of the authors books, thus generating more sales.
    As far as recycling or to use the new buzz word, repurposing, I would only make a lamp or Christmas tree from books that are too worn to read. I cannot imagine making a doorstop from a perfectly good book, unless the writing was so bad as to be useless.

    1. Your point about discovering ‘new’ authors is well made, Sari, making secondhand books as relevant as friends’ recommendations or published reviews in encouraging readers to try authors they wouldn’t usually consider.

      I winced when I saw a pile of old hardbacks being drilled into for a table lamp on a recent interior design TV challenge. I appreciated the creative repurposing aspect but didn’t condone the cavalier attitude to physical repositories of ideas. But then that’s what repurposing involves — negation of a previous person’s efforts in order to produce a new and different creation — and why should we deny imaginative creativity when it actually happens?

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