When you think about it, books are odd. They're inanimate objects, but they come alive when you start reading them. Some people may think books are obsolete -- who needs the printed page when you can read "Moby-Dick" online or download it to your PDA? -- but I'll never tire of the feel of a cracking open a brand-new book for the first time or returning to an old favorite for the hundredth.
Except when I do. Tire, that is.
Then what do I do? When I am nourished by a bottle of wine, the wine is gone and I chuck the bottle. When I'm done having my way with a book, it's still available for its original purpose. So available that it continues to fill my bookshelves, crowd my nightstand, tumble from my end table.
And yet I hate getting rid of books. According to many e-mails and phone calls I've received, many of you do, too. Who takes old books? you ask plaintively.
Many charitable organizations, including the Salvation Army and Goodwill, accept donations of books to sell in their thrift shops.
"We love taking old books," said Goodwill of Greater Washington's Brendan Hurley. "It's one of the best-selling items we have and brings in tons of money to fund our programs."
Kathy Carlisle, of the Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Centers, said they accept books, too. "We prefer, just because we are a Christian organization, not to receive anything with profanity or pornography. We go through them all, and if we find things like that, we don't put them out."
Many public libraries also accept donations, not necessarily to supplement the books they lend from their shelves, but usually to sell at book sales.
Then there are well-established fundraising events such as the Stone Ridge School Book Sale (www.stoneridge.org/booksale) and the Bookfair of the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (www.aafsw.org).
Many of these outfits -- charities, libraries -- are mildly discriminating. They want stuff that will sell. Most don't want textbooks or encyclopedias.
Those might be just the sort of thing you're hoping to get rid of, since they take up so much room. But both fall into the category of obsolete.
A 20-year-old biology textbook isn't much good in this age of cloning. And the Web has made many people think of an encyclopedia as a bulky dust collector.
Most discriminating of all are used bookstores. "Be conscious that most used and rare book stores are selective about what they buy, so they're not going to buy your shabby fiction," said Allan Stypeck of Second Story Books. "They've already seen their 15,000 copies of the latest political figure's biography."
And not discriminating at all is the Book Thing of Baltimore, a rather extraordinary, nonprofit, um, thing that takes place weekends from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in a building not far from Johns Hopkins University (www.bookthing.org).
"People give us books. We give them away," said Book Thing founder Russell Wattenberg. "That's the entire business plan."
It's as simple as that. All the books there are free. While you can pick up books only on weekends, donors may drop off books or magazines in bins at any time.
If you can't make it to Baltimore and no one around here wants your books, the trash can or recycling bin might be the final option. In some jurisdictions -- Montgomery County, Fairfax County -- paperbacks may be recycled along with newspapers and cardboard. In some places that's a no-no. (The District, for example.)
Hardcovers are harder cases. If the jurisdiction you live in recycles paperbacks, there's a good chance you can tear the rigid covers off the hardback and recycle the pages inside. Some places don't want the hard covers at all.
"The glue retained on the hardback cover is sometimes problematic," said Pamela Gratton of Fairfax's department of public works. "We'd prefer that the hardcovers be thrown out."
In Montgomery, after you've removed the covers, you can put books in with regular paper. "The sorting process that we have doesn't facilitate the workers stopping off the line and tearing them off themselves," said the county's Susanne Burnhart-Wiggins.
Check with your local government for details.
There's another threat: the vast over-proliferation of trophies. Several readers have contacted me desperate to shift the old soccer, basketball and swimming awards that they won as children, or that their children won -- and left behind.
Isn't there some charity, readers have asked, that might want these old trophies to give to poor kids, for a youth sports league, for example?
Maybe. But if so, I was not able to find any. A local chess group did accept them for a while but no longer does.
Understandably, trophy shops have no interest in seeing trophies recycled. They make their money by selling new trophies, not helping to repurpose old ones.
It might very well be that we must do with our old trophies what we do with our empty cans of shaving cream: throw them away. But if you know someone who takes old trophies -- or if you have a creative use for them -- drop me a note at the address below.
Julia Feldmeier researched this column. For a copy of a fact sheet she compiled on who accepts donations of books locally, send an e-mail to email@example.com, or send a self-addressed stamped envelope to John Kelly, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.