This past week I talked with a friend who told me she had shredded and tossed out seven garbage bags of old papers and records. Last fall around a Halloween campfire, I learned from a retired physician friend that he built a bonfire and burned a lifetime of patient records kept in his basement years longer than governmentally mandated. “It was sort of sad,” he said. “I’d come across the name of a patient, and I’d remember him and what brought him into the office.” Sometimes, he continued, he’d thumb through the files and recall patient, treatments, and surgeries. He told about a patient, “an old farmer” who when he died, “left a thousand dollars to every single church in the county.” When we heard the story, we mused about the man’s generosity.
I have burned old records. I have shredded and discarded tax papers. I have thrown old manuscripts drafts into the fire, but would I, could I, ever burn a book? I didn’t think so…. that is, until I discovered in my one of my self-published books there were some mistakes, a couple of misspelled words and several grammatical errors. I cringed. I decided to contact every person who had purchased or to whom I had given a copy and replace it with a corrected edition. I even traveled to a couple of libraries that I knew had my book and personally oversaw their replacements. It took months, and I have replaced all but three copies. Those three are out there somewhere in the world with my shameful mistakes. What to do? I cannot find them so they will have to exist. But, I feel better knowing that most people possess the corrected versions.
Now what to do with the old books? I could not shred them. I could not bring myself to throw them in the garbage. I decided to burn them. Burning my books has been traumatic. I look at the cover, beautifully designed, finger through the pages, most of which are perfect, linguistically and grammatically, and I open the fireplace door.
The first time I burned a copy, I watched it. The pages edged black then burst into flames. It was difficult. Gradually I became less sentimental. I tore a few chapters here and there to use as samples, in the event I need to display or talk about the books. The rest, I piled by the fireplace, and this past January, each time I tossed in a log, I also tossed in a copy of my book. I took a monetary loss, but emotionally it was worth the cost.
I remember a essayist writing humorously that a painter can paint over his work, an architect can plant ivy to cover his mistake, but a writer’s mistake lasts forever. I’ve been looking for that essay all morning. It’s in one of my favorite books, Modern English Readings, edited by Loomis, Clark, and Middendorf. I’m determined to find the quote. It’s worth sharing.