Every so often, usually during a particularly slow news cycle, one comes across a story of a literary desperado finally returning an overdue library book checked out years, perhaps even decades, earlier.
One such incident occurred last summer, when an anonymous library patron returned “The Real Book About Snakes” to the Champaign County Library in Urbana, Ohio, along with a note of apology and $299.30 in cash to cover the fine.
“Sorry I’ve kept this book so long but I’m a really slow reader!” the culprit wrote in a message to the library. “I’ve enclosed my fine of $299.30 (41 years – 2 cents a day). Once again, my apologies!!”
What makes this example unusual is that the outlaw took it upon himself (anonymous or not, I’m betting the ranch that any book on snakes was checked out by a male patron) to bite the bullet and pay the fine.
Most always, libraries receiving a volume decades past due end up waiving late fees, realizing that fine exceeds the actual cost of the book in question, and also understanding that the return of a work 30, 40 or 50 years past due is more likely to generate good publicity if the library graciously renounces penalties.
That was the case in another example last summer, when the University of Wisconsin’s library received a hardcover copy of “Selected Papers on Philosophy” by William James by mail.
Included with the book was a note indicating that the work had been checked out by one of the writer’s two parents, both of whom had attended the school, although it was unclear which one had borrowed the book on Jan. 13, 1938, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
The book’s return slip indicated that patrons would be levied a fine of two cents a day for each day overdue, but the family didn’t have to pony up any cold hard cash as the library no longer collected fees on overdue books. Were the old policy still in effect, the fine would have totaled more than $550.
All of which leads me to a confession of my own: I, too, am a biblio-scofflaw.
In mid-May 1977 I checked out “The Maiden Voyage: The Titanic Epic – From the Embarkation to the Disaster and the Dramatic Courtroom Aftermath,” by Geoffrey Marcus, from a small Louisiana library.
Due two weeks later, on May 30, 1977, for whatever reason “The Maiden Voyage” never made into the library’s return bin. More than likely, I’d misplaced it, for as a 12-year old I was even more absent-minded than I am now (certainly a startling revelation to those who have known me only as an adult).
Within a year of checking out the book in question, my family had moved to another part of the country (though not to escape potential repercussions for my transgression, as they had no inkling of my misdeed), and “The Maiden Voyage” was packed up and forgotten about.
Periodically, I would spy it among my other volumes and recognize it as that waylaid library book, but after I went away to college and then lived away from my parents for many years, it was out of mind for more than a decade.
Then, in the mid-1990s, while spending some time at my parent’s home in California, I collected a few books of my own, along with “The Maiden Voyage.” When I took a job at a newspaper in the Florida Panhandle in 1996 I was optimistic that I might have an opportunity to return the wandering hardback to its rightful home, as I’d be located just five hours from the library in question.
Alas, during my 2-1/2 years in Florida, I made but one short trip through that small town, during a journey to New Orleans, and, of course, was unable to locate “The Maiden Voyage” when it came time to leave for Louisiana.
So now, nearly four decades after “borrowing” the 320-page volume, it remains on my shelf, Tell-Tale Heart-like, taunting me, reminding me of my inability to plan, to organize, to follow through.
Some might say that I could always drop the book in the mail with a note and be done with it. But part of me feels that if I’m 37 years late returning a volume, I should have the guts to show up in person, turn it in myself and face the music.
Perhaps this fall I’ll take a trip to Louisiana, under the guise of setting off in search of giant catfish, and make a stop at a certain small-town public library and throw myself on the mercy of the bibliophiles.