‘I hate books. Can’t read them. They send me to sleep,’ says the man responsible for annihilating tens of thousands of books a year. Let’s call him B. Secrecy is at a premium in his trade and we are granted an interview only after protracted negotiation, a series of deferrals and cancellations, and lots of provisos. Sat in a bare, bleak office somewhere in the Midlands, with the constant background din of next door’s shredding machines, he lets us know we’re fortunate to get a glimpse of the world of ‘destruction work’.
Some years ago a national newspaper wanted an article and pictures. When B. refused they hovered above the plant in a helicopter taking telephoto snaps. The place is strategically unkempt to keep away visitors. ‘Nobody knows what it is,’ B. says. Returns or surplus stock can’t leak out to be resold, so leftovers have to be shredded securely. A ‘Certificate of Destruction’ proves the items no longer exist. It’s just business. But there is something else, too: destruction is the hidden, unsavoury side of the book trade. People are squeamish about it. Publishers are wary of their reputations; they want to be thought of as the makers of books, not their destroyers.
B. doesn’t like books, but he talks knowledgeably, animatedly, even lyrically about their raw material. He knows paper inside out. He understands complex variations of weight, grade and texture. He knows how it’s made and unmade; holding it up to the light he can show you how the fibres in a sheet of notepaper bind it together; he can tell by its taste if a banknote is made of genuine Cypriot white virgin pulp; and he can talk at length about the construction and coatings of a cardboard box. In the shredding plant, what matters is matter. To the outsider, the novelty may lie in spotting familiar authors or titles and feeling the slight frisson as the big names – Jeffrey Archer, David Baldacci, C.J. Samson, Tony Robinson – disappear into the noisy teeth of the shredder. The sorting process is careful and expert, but isn’t to do with what’s printed in the books. Workers in fluorescent jackets stand at tables, intently picking and separating, removing staples from office waste, filleting the innards of hardbacks, separating white from non-white pages.
Confetti rains down from the shredding machines. Strewn everywhere on the floor is a babel of printed scraps: a non-stop factory of literary recombination and experimentation. Pressed tight into 650-kilo bales and stacked ready for delivery to paper mills, they are huge three-dimensional cut-up poems, only their surfaces of tiny orphaned fragments legible. Here, books are nothing special, just part of a wider ecology of continual destruction, recomposition and miscegenation: books; toilet paper; office waste; files; receipts; and in a second warehouse next-door, the non-paper waste – crates of bicycles; video cassettes; Zimmer frames. The shredder is powerful, omnivorous, indiscriminate. The baling machine, too. The foreman raises his right hand with some pride to show where the baler snapped off his thumb seven years ago. He had it stitched back on but it doesn’t move. ‘You’ve got to respect these machines at the end of the day.’ At another plant, down south, a worker tumbled into the baler along with the shredded paper.
These are places where boundaries erode and disappear. Everything, it seems, is fibrous pulp to be manufactured into something else. Used nappies are turned into ceiling tiles. Scraps of Jeffrey Archer could become a Wisdom for the Ages; a computer manual could become Jeffrey Archer. And in the lottery of recycling, pretty much anything can end up as a lottery ticket.