What is the fate of a library book that never gets checked out? Does it stay in the library anyway, holding fast in its place, waiting for someone to borrow it? Or does it eventually get cast off, donated to a thrift or used bookstore or incorporated into the collection of a place like Brooklyn’s Reanimation Library? And what does it say about the book itself, that no one has ever wanted to borrow and read it? Is it a failure of its form?
These are some of the questions I mulled over yesterday, when I visited artist Meriç Algün Ringborg’s Library of Unborrowed Books at Art in General. Ringborg first created a version of the project last year in Stockholm, where she lives, using volumes from the Stockholm Public Library. Here in New York, she’s used hundreds of books from the Center for Fiction, all of them never before checked out, their borrowing cards ruled but blank, white and still brand new (if they even have borrowing cards; some haven’t made it that far in the process). The books are arranged on five rows of blue metal shelving, as in the stacks of a library, with certain titles highlighted with their covers out, like you’d find in a bookstore.
It’s tempting to write off the books as rejects, snickering at their titles and scoffing at how many of them sound like horribly cliché mysteries and thrillers. (I asked if Ringborg specifically sought out out these types of books and was told no; they’re apparently just the ones that no one borrows.) Consider this list of titles I jotted down: A Puritan Witch, The South Florida Book of the Dead, Out of the Frying Pan, Kockroach, Look Out for Hydrophobia, The Station Wagon Murder, Fictional Rambles in and about Boston, How to Get Rid of a Woman, and Pagan Babies.
There was also a book called The Reading of Books (oh, the irony!), a 652-page hardcover called Cosette, billed as the sequel to Les Misérables, and, unrelatedly, two different books called Judas Horse and The Judas Goat.
Despite the absurdity, I couldn’t help but be curious about some of these titles, wondering what we’re missing, whether there’s a hidden masterpiece among them. I cracked open some covers and read a few first pages; many of them didn’t seem bad, although with fiction, a handful of early paragraphs often won’t tell you much. Unless, that is, it’s painfully clear that they’re terrible — or at least dated, as in the case of They Have Bodies, a 1929 “realistic novel in eleven chapters and three acts” by Barney Allen. Midway down the soft, faded page, I read:
A plump wife. A gold-blonde wife … A sweet-smelling wife. With coils of gold-blonde hair. And rather large features. Not the kind that get battered and bruised with age like those defaced 25-cent pieces that come into your hand once in a while. A clean-featured wife.
Then again, there were some books that seemed worth checking out: Men on Men: Best New Gay Fiction 7 (clever title! I’d give it a shot), a volume that won the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 1989 … oh, and Charles Dickens. Yes, there was a lonely volume of David Copperfield that had never found its way into anyway home or lap, as well as a copy of The Trial, by Kafka (alongside a mystery titled Never Nosh a Matzo Ball), D.H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse, Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, a 1967 essay collection on Vladimir Nabokov (a piece of nonfiction that wormed its way into the collection), and books by Paul Auster, Ellery Queen, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Despite the impulse, it seems you can’t judge a book by its unborrowed-ness. I found it tempting to conjecture that the Center for Fiction owns two other copies of David Copperfield, which would explain why this one never made it past the front door, but the reality is likely another story. Maybe not very many people read that novel anymore, or the ones who do would prefer to own it, or they borrow it from friends. Maybe they read it on their e-readers, and libraries are slipping into extinction … or maybe there’s simply no accounting for taste. Still, I did leave a little comforted knowing that at least if no one’s borrowing David Copperfield, they’re also not checking out Pagan Babies.
The Library of Unborrowed Books is on view at Art in General (79 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan), through March 23.