The Carbon Footprint of Reading

Every time I go book hunting, I think of the poet Muslih-uddin Sa’di.

Sa’di was a 13th century Persian who influenced the 19th century New England Transcendentalists.  You remember those guys: the Emerson-Thoreau crowd who believed you could find the truth only by transcending the material world and drifting into a state of pure intuition.  Or something cool like that.

Anyway, the poet Sa’di wrote a verse that has stayed with me for years, and I silently recite it every time I plop down my credit card to buy another stack of books.

If thou of fortune be bereft,
And in thy store there be but left,
Two loaves, sell one, and with the dole,
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.

Picture this.  Your 401k just crashed, your mortgage feels like a black hole, and this morning your company announced another round of layoffs.  Would you sell your last loaf of bread to buy flowers?  Well, substitute “books” for “hyacinths,” and I’m there.

Books are my opium, my box of chocolates.  I have no resistance.  If a story’s good, I need to own it, keep it on my shelf and go back to it, ruffle its pages, smell it, share it with friends.  You feel that way, too?

So here’s our existential dilemma.  Every time we buy a book, we increase the carbon load to the atmosphere.  Claudia Thompson, in Recycled Papers: The Essential Guide, gives some eye-opening data.  Bottom line: 111 books = 1 tree.

How long does it take you to read 111 books?  What if you count magazines, newspapers, catalogs, photocopies , billing statements, Valentine cards to loved ones?  Every year, one tree absorbs 26 pounds of carbon dioxide and exhales enough oxygen to keep four people alive.  The UN says, to make up for all the trees we’ve killed in the last decade alone, we’d need to plant a forest the size of Peru.  Only, Peru is just not into that.

So is buying a book a form of murder?  When I leaf through the latest science fiction thriller, am I suffocating some future possible infant in the crib?  Does reading make me a baby killer?

Ho, a little transcendence, please!  While I’ve been typing these words, the book industry has reinvented itself.  It’s now a sleek new electronic replicator device, able to deliver any narrative text on demand to our handheld communicators.  And since every sentence comes through as charged particles instead of pulp, we’re saving babies!

Note, there’s another positive consequence: literary egalitarianism.  The old economic model of cutting down trees, manufacturing paper, ink and glue, then shipping everything across the country about three dozen times not only spewed fumes into our air, it also made books very expensive — so bookstores could only afford to carry big sellers.  No wonder Wired recently reported on the enormous market demand for books NOT carried by your average bookstore.

But now, our new electronic replicator system will give us access to all authors, all titles, all flavors of chocolate!  As an author myself, I have to rejoice.  Hyacinths, sure, and pumpernickel, too.  Sa’di might go for this.  Then again, he might prefer to ruffle those old pulpy pages.  Let me admit, I’m torn.


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