This vast languishing resource was first brought home to me in Erik Reinert’s How Rich Countries Got Rich … and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor, which highlighted a lemming-level of group-think compounded by ignorance of an entire ‘other canon’ of economic thought and writing stashed away in – at best – (conveniently) forgotten archives and, at worst, sent for pulping due to the fact that nobody had read the work recently.  

More popularly, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’sThe Shadow of the Wind had the intriguing Library of Forgotten Books as a centrepiece of the action. 

Is it reasonable to pulp library books or journals on the grounds that they haven’t recently been borrowed?  And if so in principle, what constitutes ‘recently’ in practice?  Five years? Fifty? And if a book hasn’t been read for 51 or 101 years, does that mean it’s unwanted, or simply ripe for rediscovery? 

No easy answers, though my inclination would be to build a vast library in a mountainous redoubt, with unlimited shelf space, and to buy up for a song books that are being chucked because nobody’s stumbled upon them in a few decades, which, in the life of a book, is a mere blip. 

‘The Library a wilderness of books.  The volumes of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, which lie so near on the shelf, are rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers.’ 


Source: Henry David Thoreau,The Journal 1837-1861, 16 March 1852, Damion Searls (ed.), preface by John R. Stilgoe (New York: New York Review Books, 2009), p. 117-18

Photo credit: Fred Pixlab at


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