Shelf Life

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Books have a complex and magical “Shelf” life. 

They sit there on a shelf, compact, dormant,  unblinking(!) Waiting, even.

Old Victorian Childrens' Books

But the instant they are pulled down and opened, they wonderfully spring to life in our hands.

For first-time readers of a book, what emerges is all new and exciting, full of surprises and unexpected connections to things they currently know or are only now, for the first time, beginning to understand.

For those returning to a book, finding that silent volume waiting where it was left, that book’s life peeks out in brief flashes from pages randomly chosen and remembered. If read again, the book’s predictable energy emerges more slowly, wrapped in the thin fog of memories of the previous reading. In that case, the vague sense of what the book once meant will begin to intertwine with that returning reader’s interim life experiences and maturing concepts of the world and how it works. As a result the author’s message will evolve as it is shaped by the reader’s more mature understandings into useful messages for their now older and perhaps wiser selves.

“Good book!”

…and then it goes back on the shelf…to wait … patiently … once again.

As it turns out, it doesn’t matter how many times a book has been read. What matters in keeping a book alive is that it IS read…and read again…

This is why libraries are so important. Any book in a library can be repeatedly brought back to life via continuous healthy circulation among waves of children coming of age in the neighborhood, contributing a magical something to each of them. Over time, books can get creased and torn, with their spines broken and their pages stained. But for that next youngster, eager for a reason known only to them to discover the wonders inside, all of that wear and tear disappears and the book’s life emerges from the printed page, new and transfixing once more.

Certainly a book’s potential vitality “lasts” in some sense as long as the original owner has it. Yet, most books can be “used up” by an individual, like jokes are used up when once heard. Then, what?

With each subsequent owner/reader, the immutable language and culture of the times represented in the book begin to recede into the past of course. In that sense, a book’s publication date, its birthday, does matter, especially if it contains what becomes outdated content or archaic, even if somehow clever, language. That book “morphs” slowly, but inexorably there on the shelf. Savvy children’s librarians, detecting the change in one of their charges, then move it to a new shelf, within easy reach of those from special populations like literary scholars, historians, linguists, and nostalgic grandparents.

The end of this book’s shelf “Life” then nears. As an expression of the evolving mentality of generations upon generations and then as an extension of the dwindling attention of scholars and Nanna, the book becomes quaint and irrelevant, outdated and erroneous, obscure and yet still somehow magical.

It only takes one hand to reach into that battered box labeled “discard” or the focused gaze of an interested reader  to once more revive a book to an additional, fleeting moment of relevance and value.

Share like a librarian. Share a book with a child.

Then watch the magic.


4 Responses to “Shelf Life”

  1. Deborah Cox March 26, 2014 at 9:34 am #

    This website is wonderful! Not only will I use it here in the library, but I have shared it with my teachers. I am at a Preschool through fifth grade, public elementary school, and this is exactly the kid of material that we need. Thank you! Thank you!

  2. Dean V. June March 28, 2014 at 9:50 am #

    I am just blown away with this. I have shared it with as many as I can think of…!!!

  3. Chuck Thompson March 31, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

    Dr. Condon’s narrative about the shelf life of a children’s book, or any other book, is spot-on! Teachers who read his narrative will understand the “power” of books and the opportunities they provide for young readers when they read a book for the first time and even a second or third time!!!

    • Mark Condon April 1, 2014 at 11:07 am #

      Chuck! Glad you liked it. Pass it along if you like.
      Mark C.