The Strange Pleasure of Destroying Paperbacks

It was a pleasure to burn.
The first line of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 lingered above my head, a dust cloud of self-conscious parody, as I ripped a paperback Debbie Macomber romance in half. I dropped the halves of the destroyed book into a plastic tub and reached for another. Like a papery slurp, a satisfying sound, the tearing.
Six months ago, I was still working at a used bookstore in North Charleston, where we exchanged used books for store credit. Part of the job entailed pricing these books. We referred to laminated charts on the wall and adhered the correct stickers to the covers’ lower right corners. At first, I struggled to apply the sticker correctly, the small rectangle slanting askew when I punched the book with a price-sticker gun. If the books were in poor condition, if their spines were too bent, covers too worn, or pages ripped, we destroyed the books.
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When I first began working the job, the task inspired goosebumps. Seemed a sacrilege, maybe a crime. To destroy a book. The book as an object had long been a holy thing—I refused to throw away or donate books, my bookshelves double-stacked and overstuffed.
I tried to do it gently, the stitching in the book’s spine popping like muscled sinew, and this seemed like a too-slow torture. After a week, two weeks, I performed the role with glee. Sometimes I clutched both covers in two hands and tore the book completely in half, its innards fluttering into the plastic tub graveyard. We hardly ever gave this treatment to new or rare books, anything that could still be sold. But for a redundant romance novella, a Christmas one-off murder mystery, or a copy of Twilight (of which we had dozens, hundreds maybe), for these books came the tearing. This process made sense too because we often had too many books on our shelves and each day we performed the minor Sisyphean task of pricing and shelving new books. Hundreds arrived each day.
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It was difficult too not to feel an inkling of envy. How did these brainless books sell so well? How did they even get published? I waited until I had worked at the bookstore for three months before letting on that I too was a new author and I had a fresh book out. I was minted a real writer. I had waited because I was aware at how egotistical it sounded to announce so soon after meeting someone, “Oh, I’ve published a book.” Especially to English majors struggling to publish their own work.  But in the months after the first book’s release, I began feeling less and less like a real writer.
I had just returned, upon starting the job, from the biggest book festival I had ever attended in Decatur, Georgia, where I met several famous authors and gave a short reading and talk about my own book. I maybe sold two books that weekend and sat down to speak with my publisher about my failure to actually market the book. It came out the Spring of my senior year of college, and soon after I graduated, I dived into the messy world of food and beverage. The high of being a newly-minted real writer didn’t last long.
So of course I harbored some small meanness toward the plot-less romance novels, the bestsellers crammed with butchered sentences, and pop fiction flying off the shelves. My only revenge to maim the physical objects, proof of human hubris undone. How could anyone expect to create anything meaningful, write anything lasting, if one day it might end up bruised and un-sellable if one day I might be tearing it in half, partially mourning and partially celebrating the book’s demise?
I applied for the job at the bookstore to learn how the business, the real day-to-day 13047849_638515372962394_4552141268791718011_obusiness, of books happened. I learned that bookstore employees suggest books only because they love them. I learned that the business of selling books had more to do with practicality than any lofty ideal of selling literature.
But I knew also that it was a magical moment, when a customer approached the register with a book I loved. One I might gush about, enthusiasm spilling between us. The books were cheap too. Most were less than three dollars. And for that amount, I might send someone home with a small miracle.
[You can find copies of Derek Berry’s first novel Heathens and Liars on Lickskillet County on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and PRA Publishing].
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I Want To Grow Up to Be Ryan Gosling (Or a Pirate)

Every male thinks that maybe they can at times be  very romantic creatures as in, Ryan-Gosling-from-The Notebook-romantic. That sort of expectation is just not justified by the sad reality of almost imminent obesity and male pattern baldness. As kids, we want to grow up to be a lot of things.

Rich.

Handsome.

Charming.

Intellectual.

Published.

We imagine the future to hold so many things that it so obviously cannot. Like a six pack, maybe. Like billions of dollars and a book deal. I began thinking about this when writing my “Writing Biography” posts this weekend.

In the fifth grade, I had huge plans for my future. I would be on Oprah and parade through the streets while people screamed my name. I was also for the duration of my childhood under the impression that I would die at 16. I would publish a book that would rock the world, change society… and then I’d die.

After publishing something, I could die. That would have been fine with me, just sixteen years of life and one book on the shelves.

Well, I didn’t publish anything. I didn’t gain the romantic suave of Ryan Gosling or his six packs. At sixteen, I didn’t die and maybe although it was just a small premonition, I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t made real plans for the future, hadn’t really thought beyond what might have been my imminent death.

It’s one of those strange notions sparked during childhood that stick with you: sixteen years seemed like it would be long enough to achieve everything I’ve ever wanted to do. Maybe not.

The problem with growing up is that you have to change your game plan, the older you get. Maybe when you’re young, you can want to be a robot or a ninja. With how many video games I played and episodes of Power Rangers I watched, I thought it was imminent that one day, I’d save the earth from a horde of attacking aliens.

But as we grow older, we cross out things we deem impossible. As William Wilberforce said, “We are too young to realize that certain things are impossible, so we will do them anyways.” But then suddenly becoming a robot seems impossible. We presume we’ll never save the earth from aliens or don a ninja suit.

After this, more realistic dreams crumble. Maybe we can’t be lawyers, can’t be doctors. Can’t woo women with smooth ease. Can’t write stories that make people cry or rejoice or feel anything. And there’s a fine line between impossible and improbable, I think.

There are truths that you have to come to terms with, like the fact that you will never be Ryan Gosling. But there are also hard truths that must come to terms with you.

If you really, really want to become a pirate, you just need a fast ship and an eyepatch. A crew, some cannons, a cutlass, and a criminal record.

If you really want to become a doctor, you’ll need to go the medical school. I think I’d have an easier time becoming a pirate, but don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done.

If you really want to become Ryan Gosling, you must discover the secret to altering your DNA. Also, get a gym membership.

If you really want to become an author, you first have to write a book.