Where Books Go to Die


by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)


There was an almost perfect copy of Papa: Hemingway in Key West 1928-1940 by James McLendon who I knew when I lived briefly in Key West. Tucked inside this Popular Library paperback [which, by the way, sold for .95 cents when it was published in 1972] was an article about Hemingway from an April 12, 1999 Newsweek. It was about the publication of True at First Light, the last writings of Papa edited by his son Patrick.

I also picked up a brand new copy of The Sportswriter, a novel by the Pen/Faulkner winning writer Richard Ford, as well as a collection of short stories, The Next New World written by one of my favorite Peace Corps writers, Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975-76).

None of these books were library marked. They had, however, been given to the library. And they were now stacked on the bargain shelf of the library, next to the small cafe that sold snacks and coffee, and in front of an art exhibition of high school end-of-year art work.

I was in the New Rochelle Public Library, where, (and I checked the computer to make sure), they have copies of some of my novels. So, you can guess, this is one of my favorite libraries.

It is also here where I find old books that have outlived their jackets or value to this library. Still, they are special to me as they are some of the books I grew up with. A novel by John P. Marquand, a writer I read when I was eleven or twelve. I loved his most famous book, Point of No Return. And who among you have read anything by Hamilton Basso? Have you read The View From Pompey Head? That book came out in 1954. Then there is The Ninth Wave [published in 1956] by Eugene Burdick. It won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award back in ’56. [Burdick, as you might know, was the co-author with William Lederer of The Ugly American, the novel that launched the Peace Corps.] And I might add to that list of books being given away by the library, The Zinzin Road, a novel about the early days of the Peace Corps in Liberia published in 1966 and written by Fletcher Knebel, author of Night of Camp David and co-author of Seven Days in May. [Go to any yard sale and you’ll mostlikely find a copy of the Zinzin Road.  Knebel wrote this novel after he did an evaluation of the Peace Corps project for Charlie Peters Evaluation Department in the agency. I have several copies of the novel, don’t ask me why. I am not crazy about the writing, but the story is interesting, and Knebel was onto something, not about the Peace Corps, but about Americans, black and white.

What does this say about these good books being given away or sold off for a quarter? Should it depress every writer or would-be writer out there? [If you really want to be depressed go to a book store (if you can find one) and look at the hundreds and hundreds of new books being published, and not one of them yours!]

No, what finds their way onto the giveaway shelves of most libraries are the books that have been best sellers. The libraries have enough copies that they can toss away those without book jackets or with coffee stains. While these copies have been left to die, there is another one somewhere else on a shelf that is living the good life.

So, go ahead and write a best seller and I’ll buy a copy on the giveaway shelf at my local library.



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  • Well done, laddie, a paean for a dying breed, and a dying way of life.. The ninth wave, alone, would be worth the price of a trip of browsing. And I’d be proud to dredge up a classic John Coyne. Wouldn’t it be grand if they could come up with a Kindle featuring the entire Peace Corps booklocker?!? One thing I loved about the old B&Ns: they had stocks of the old reliables like ‘How to Build a Better Vocabulary’ and ‘The Great Cogitator.’ Always something to mull or chew upon.
    Good on you! Keep churning it out!

    • Where books go to live in Qatar: Doha, I found out yesterday, has one of the Middle East’s best libraries, in the form of a spaceship. I hope to visit before tonight’s USA-Wales match, or tomorrow. Won’t it be interesting, John, if like your library, it has a section of free used books, perhaps donated by expats.

  • I can relate to your story. John. I, too, frequent the bargain alcove near the entrance of each of the heavily used libraries in the Fort Vancouver Regional Library system here in southwest Washington state (Vancouver, WA and vicinity) — 1$for hardbacks, 50 cents soft. And any of my books you might find in the regular stacks, for borrowing, are ones I have donated to the FVRL system.

  • John,
    I too forage for books on the give away rack in our library in Comox, British Columbia. Recently my Peace Corps experience came into play with those free books.

    In the Peace Corps I was stationed in Tanzania at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1966-67 and often climbed the mountain with an aging Italian doctor Giovanni Balletto. During WWII he along many with Italians living in Ethiopia had been interned in concentration camps around the British colonies in Africa. He was sent to one at the base of Mt. Kenya in the town of Nanyuki. During their stay , Giovanni and two other inmates escaped and climbed Mt. Kenya and raised an Italian flag on one of its peaks. Then they broke back into the camp as there was no where else to escape to. One of the three Felice Bennuzi wrote a book about the adventure called “No Picnic on Mt. Kenya”. It became a best seller in the commonwealth countries and in Italy.

    In 1992 I visited Giovanni’s grave in Moshi, Tanzania and mentioned the visit in a travel blog I was writing. From those three lines, I got a number of queries about the expedition. One of the inquisitors was an Italian writer who published books in consortium with two other writers. Their nom de plume is Wu Ming. Never saw one of their books until a few days ago in the free rack at the library and grabbed it. The title “Altai”. Takes place in 16th century Venice.

  • Great piece of history, George. You should write a piece about your Peace Corps experience and meeting him for our site.

  • The upside of the library sales is that our cash strapped libraries can use what money they make from these sales to buy new books and that is a valuable upside. (Maybe they’ll buy mine for their library!!!)

  • Your piece about library “free” stacks or even “discount” stacks was good. Thank you. Sixty years ago when we were building and expanding, libraries prided themselves on the number of tomes in their collection. Today there seems to be less money for books and the preoccupation is to use the shelves available. To achieve this, librarians search the stacks for books that have not been checked out in five years and offer them for sale. An incredible number of valuable books are being disposed of.

    Before our year-long journey through Latin America, my wife, sister-in-law and I spent months researching, reading and typing up notes. Once a month, we had a marathon session, sometimes twelve hours long, sharing what we had found out and sharing notes. I remember how I found a photo-copied book about an obscure ancient Indian culture in Bolivia. It had been written by an unknown PhD. By happenstance, I ended up riding horses and bulls across that flooded Bolivian expanse a year later and saw the ruins described. That photo-copied book became a legend and is footnoted in almost every clinical description of this lost civilization. In todays’ world, the book would never have been accepted to be included in the library or had it been, would be disposed of for a lack of interest.

    We now produce many more books than ever before. Modern print-on-demand books and e-books are really great but simultaneously, we are treating literature like an empty aluminum can or a stained wrapper to be disposed of. Kurt Vonnegut ended one of his many books with a comment that went something like this, “The Dark ages: they never ended.”

  • Interesting topic. I buy most of my books online, sometimes for 3.99 and sometimes for ten or twelve dollars. I also pick some books from sidewalk libraries. But now I’m trying to donate more books to the library than I take home, and the librarians seem to like that. They say some people are looking specifically for old books. I wonder if books might actually become more valuable over time if they’re not thrown away.

    Most of the books I buy on the internet, though sold as used, used are actually brand new. Copies of m 2011 Peace Corps book are being sold “as new” on” the Internet because they are brand new. Nobody ever bought them, or, if they did, they didn’t read them. 9I get a dollar or two in royalties from iUniverse every year.). I finally realized I was writing to myself rather than to readers, so my next book will be much shorter.

    Incidently, a recent Peace Corps memoir, published in April, would be 669 pages long–mine was only 600 or so–according to Amazon, if it were available as a book, which it’s not. It’s only available as a kindle, and I had to pay $13 for thaht. It’s titled “We’re Not Here to Change Things, a Filthy Memoir”, an apt title for her content. So far I’ve read about 150 pages, and most of what I’ve read is an x-rated rant not suitable for RPCVs, (which maybe my book wasn’t either, but mine was not like hers). Anyway, if I’m able to get through Ms. Gutter’s book, I’ll probably do an Amazon review. She only has one review so far, and it’s not a positive review.

    I think I still care about the Peace Corps not only becasause of my personal connection but also because it’s probably a microcosm of American youth (with occasional codgers). Ms. Gutter was not a codger, but maybe in her forties when she signed up, She’s ex-military, and I think her observations, if not her language, were probably valid for the Uganda program where she served. But, of course, she was a very bitter woman. She’ served in Uganda for eighteen months before everyone was evacuated because of COVID.

    Good topic, John. Glad you’re keeping things going.


    • Thank you for the reference and review of the book, “We’re Not Here to Change Things, a Filthy Memoir”. I am not going to pay to read it. I will see if there is any was our Denver Public Library can help.

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