Disappearing ink: Are books becoming an endangered species?

Trekking to the Oak Park Public Library’s annual book fair is a tradition for me and my book-loving friends. We hope to find hidden gems, undiscovered treasures, forgotten classics and, admittedly, the occasional bodice ripper. The fair typically offers more than 100,000 books in every conceivable category, as well as CDs, DVDs and records.

old booksWe each paid $5 for early bird shopping on Friday night, hoping to beat the crowds who go on Saturday for free. Armed with cash and a game plan, we split up and dug in.

I hit the massive cookbook section first with the goal of finding canning how-tos. I canned with my grandmother every summer in Kansas when I was a kid. Sweat ran down our faces and backs as we “put up” quart after quart of tomatoes and sauce, corn, green beans, pickles and peaches, as well as many pints of jam. Hearing those telltale “ping, ping, ping” noises that signaled the glass bottles were sealing was rewarding after hours of blanching, boiling, peeling, chopping, measuring and pouring.

I’ve recently begun yearning to can again. Imagine what a treat it would be to tuck into a jar of sweet corn in the middle of another polar vortex. I’m fuzzy on the details of how to can, however, so I need a book to guide me. I could look up how-to videos on YouTube, but I’d rather not spend time weeding through dozens of clips to get specific nuggets of information when I can open a book and get instant answers.

The library tables were sagging with hundreds of niche cookbooks – everything from “slow food” while camping in the Australian Outback during a leap year to “famous 1920s” Asian recipes – written in Chinese. I must have spent an hour looking for a single canning book. Empty-handed and disappointed, I moved on to one of the largest collections: classic literature.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but was intrigued with John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” and the 50th anniversary edition of “The Yearling” from Marjorie Rawlings. I’ve always loved John Steinbeck, but was not familiar with this particular novel. I’m a sucker for any books about animals, so I couldn’t pass these up for 50 cents each. My neighbor who has a free book-sharing box in her front yard will appreciate having them when I’m done.

Next, I zeroed in on the do-it-yourself section, a hodgepodge of books covering everything from taxidermy and homesteading to repairing cars and installing plumbing. I found another item on my wish list – a bicycle maintenance book. It seemed like a bargain for $1. If I can figure out how to change a flat without divine intervention, I’ll be in good shape. Fortunately, I knew how to put my chain back on when it fell off on my ride to work today, because I haven’t had time to read the book yet.

As with canning, I’m sure I could find videos and articles online that cover basic bike repairs, but I want an easy reference that I can put on the basement floor and follow step by step when I’m elbow deep in grease and gears. I don’t want to gunk up my laptop.

The book fair’s music section was probably the smallest collection of all, but I headed over to see what I could find. I picked up a 1940s song book and laughed when it opened to the score for “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” No one was laughing, however, when it was published in 1942 as a response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. I was more familiar with other hits in the book, including “Sentimental Journey,” “Happy Days and Lonely Nights,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

I didn’t get anything for myself in the music section, but I found the perfect gift for a friend and singer who is a big Judy Garland fan. The May/June 1997 issue of Sheet Music Magazine (who knew?) featured the cover story, “The Judy Garland I Knew,” complete with scores for three of her hits. At 50 cents, it’s probably the cheapest, coolest gift I’ve found – and without trying. You can find the scores online, but they cost a heck of a lot more than 50 cents.

I asked a guy wearing a book fair “volunteer” shirt and badge what happens to the books that don’t sell. When the fair is over, the library allows nonprofit organizations to take as many as they want for free. The problem is that no one wants them anymore, so thousands end up being recycled, he explained. That’s an awful lot of toilet paper. I suspect more end up in dumpsters.

It seemed like there were fewer people hauling out boxes and wheeled suitcases stuffed full of books than in recent years. E-readers, YouTube and Google have changed the way we seek and process information. My friends and I also scaled way back. My total for the night was $5.50 for three paperbacks, one hardback and one magazine. I’ve been giving books away for a while now and while there are some I won’t part with, I don’t feel the need to fill the empty spaces on the shelves.

People are still nostalgic about print, but technology has changed the way we interact with books. At least one organization understands this shift and is doing what it can to preserve print for future generations. The Internet Archive and Open Library is a treasure trove of physical and digital reading. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the books from the Oak Park Public Library book fair find a home here.

Have you eliminated books from your home? What did you do with them? Let us know in the comments below.

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