The printed copy first went digital in the early 1970s, when an American techie named Michael Hart retyped the Declaration of Independence, uploaded it to a server and sent it to a few of his coworkers. His goal quickly became to digitize all books with expired copyrights (at that time, anything published before 1923), and though Hart died in 2011, his Project Gutenberg still is running with hundreds of volunteers who furiously type and upload to the server every day.

"Throughout the history of publishing, there has been no sense of tradition," says author Robin Sloan. "The production of the printed book was all chaos, competition, stealing ideas, shutting each other out of markets."

Sloan's a self-described media inventor who has had gigs with Poynter, Current TV and Twitter predicting the future of media. In 2012 he released his first novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.

Sloan says he dived into research on the history of publishing in the process of writing his book, which examines traditional type, underground printing presses and the future of bookstores through a fictional lens.

"Publishing was about the right way to do things — mixing ink, cutting type and arguing how to put it all together," he says. "It sounds exactly like the Internet. And while I never see a total and complete end to the printed book, I think e-books will continue to face the same sort of challenges and even newer forms of competitive technology in the future."

But one thing is certain: No one will ever take a guillotine to an e-book.

That's the name for the machine used to slice the spine off a hardcover book — the first step in the recycling process.

The modern-day book "beheader" is much more industrial than its murderous ancestor. It looks like a large office printer/scanner with an adjustable blade at the top that can be lifted for a book's (or multiple books') height. When it's in action, a book is lined up under the blade on the guillotine's flat surface, alongside and on top of other hardbacks.

A large crank is turned, and a plastic window closes to protect the machine's operator. The blade drops.

With a large crack, the books' spines are severed from the paper. The front and back covers fall to the sides, and the hardback material is tossed into the garbage. The book's pages then can be recycled alongside paperback books.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that in early 2012, paper made up more than 40 percent of a typical landfill's contents, a proportion that employees at the North Gate Transfer Station in Phoenix are working to reduce with limited budgets and a changing culture.

Recycling programs across the country accept and process paperback books fairly easily, but because of the way hardbacks are produced, their destruction is a complicated (and often skipped) process. The landfill is easier.

Facilities with enough guillotines to destroy hardback books in large quantities are difficult to find and often charge per cut, which many recycling programs can't afford. If you're looking for a DIY option, the standard FedEx Office location usually has a guillotine that can cut through a couple of hardbacks for $1.50 a slice, employees say.

Every day in Phoenix, truckloads deliver more than 3,000 tons of trash and recycling to the transfer station, an isolated facility off the Black Canyon Freeway, to be sorted or taken to the landfill.

On a cold morning in January, material snakes through thousands of square feet where machines and human arms sort paper, bottles, cardboard, plastics and an influx of discarded holiday decorations.

From the observation deck, it's hard to keep track of what goes by and where it's going, but it's easy to spot items you wouldn't expect to see at a recycling plant — sandwiched between flattened boxes and soda bottles were an American flag, a collection of stuffed animals and remnants of paperbacks.

Down the line, the American flag is pulled, and the stuffed animals are placed off to the side, but the books take the long journey with the newspaper and the junk mail. At the end of the day, the recyclable materials are sorted, bundled like hay bales and sold to Chinese pulping plants, say city officials.

Long before Pedro Esparza switched off the lights and shut down the last Borders bookstore in Arizona, he remembers standing next to a Dumpster with his fellow employees and throwing away books.

The 30-year-old worked at Borders stores in Tempe and Mesa on and off for more than four years and says that in order to claim losses on books that didn't sell or that were pulled to make room on the floor for things like coffee stands and year-round gift displays, employees are forced to strip the covers off before they toss them in the garbage. No book can be saved, donated or left intact. That, Esparza says, was typical Borders policy.

Dan Cullen of the American Booksellers Association says the practice of stripping books for their covers is a choice the bookseller makes. If books aren't selling on the shelves, even after discounts and specials, sellers often are forced to return them to the publisher or wholesaler and claim their losses. Some publishers and wholesalers, he says, just want the cover and the ISBN code. To them, the rest of the book has no value.

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