I still put my stamp on library books

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Some years back, there was a quiet revolution in public libraries. Those little cards in the back of the books - the ones stamped with the names and addresses of borrowers - were unceremoniously eliminated.

I asked a librarian friend of mine about this. Her answer was short and, for me, anything but sweet: "Privacy."

I don't consider myself a nosy person, but part of the enjoyment of borrowing library books had always been seeing who had read them before me. On occasion, I was rewarded with a familiar name.

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Years ago, for example, I borrowed W.H. Auden's 'Letters From Iceland,' only to see from the circulation card that one of my less-than-stellar students had once done the same. I upended him in the hallway one day with, "I understand you like Auden." His reply: "How did you know?" When I hefted the volume, his eyes caught fire. An animated conversation of real substance ensued, and a student who had previously not stood out was suddenly sparkling with interest.

The information on the circulation cards also had special importance for me because of my esoteric reading tastes. I mean, who else would read the history of the kings of Albania? Well, as it turned out, four other souls were as discriminating as I. But the last had taken the book out in 1944, so I harbored little expectation of meeting any of them on the street. However, I played out some leash on my imagination. I pictured one of these kindred spirits slipping the old volume from the library shelf on a winter evening, hurrying home (through gently falling snow) to an easy chair before a crackling fire, and then easing into the reign of King Zog the First.

Although the use of those telling circulation cards was discontinued, they were not, for some reason, removed from the books. As such, they go on providing evidence of a time when privacy wasn't the issue it has become today. In a fit of inspiration, I decided to avail myself of the cards' unused space in what I considered a creative way: as a sort of billboard for personal editorial reviews.

I got this idea from learning that Harry Truman - said to have read every book in the Independence, Mo., library - wrote comments in the margins of the borrowed volumes. True to his outspokenness, some of these broadsides were unabashedly profane. I was committed, however, to keeping my remarks strictly G-rated.

I started with Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley." A large number of people had borrowed this book before me, but there was enough white space left on the card for me to pen an evaluation: "This is the most generous book Steinbeck ever wrote."

Now that I had broken the ice, there was no stopping me. There followed, in quick succession, Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" ("A tribute to the power of simple language"); Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" ("This is the book I wish I had written"); E. Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News" ("A rare find - a woman author who is a master of the grotesque"); and an early 20th-century fantasy titled "Islandia" ("It felt so good when I stopped reading this book that I wish I'd never started").

Once I had written a good number of these unsolicited reviews, it occurred to me that some vigilant librarian might not approve of my unorthodoxy. That never happened. But something else did.

One day I took out a book - whose title I've long forgotten - on the migrations of early European tribes. After I had finished, I sought out my space on the circulation card and wrote, "This author has succeeded where others have failed: He has made the Northumbrians interesting to me."

About a year later I had cause to consult this book once again. Lo and behold, someone had written a comment on the circulation card in response to mine, to wit: "I respect your assessment of the Northumbrians, but I myself prefer the Visigoths."

I became so excited at this contact with a potential soulmate that I quickly counter-scribbled, "Who are you?" Then I slipped the book back onto the shelf.

Week after week I returned to the book, to see if our circulation card correspondence would have any permanence; but alas, what might have been true love turned out to be a mere flirtation, a wee cinder, quickly extinguished.

It was no use mourning what might have been. I got what I deserved for dealing in false hopes. Perhaps I was merely reflecting a virtue of the Northumbrians, who were far more romantic than the hard-riding Visigoths.

Maybe I should have written that.

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