I’m kicking myself. I mean honestly, I have no excuse. Our family lives within walking distance of the public library. Kind of a long walk, but still. The library even has these convenient drive-up book drops for lazy peeps who can’t be bothered to park and walk a few hundred feet to return their books.
No excuse. And yet…
There is just something about libraries. Returning my checked-out materials on time has been a lifelong struggle. No exaggerating. Somewhere on one of our family’s packed bookshelves, I’m pretty sure there are a couple of books that were due to the El Sobrante Public Library in 1985.
I can’t begin to imagine how high those fines must be by now. *Shudders*
Other than the overdues issue, the public library has been one of the richest parts of my life. When I was a kid, I used to spend long, leisurely summer days in the children’s room, nose glued to a book. Or making sock puppets in the craft room. Or watching family movies on the little projection screen. Or any other special events they had on the schedule. I adored the summer reading program and took great pride in filling up my bingo grid with all the books I’d read while other kids were busy watching TV or playing with friends.
With the public library, there was nothing I couldn’t obsess over. When I was obsessed with learning foreign languages in 4th grade, I checked out every existing library book for learning Spanish, Italian, German, French, and Japanese. (It’s very hard to learn Japanese from a book, by the way). When I was obsessed with learning how to cook, I discovered a world of colorful cookbooks. Same goes for crafts. Same goes for obsessions with sci-fi, supernatural stories, and books about kids getting kidnapped or hooked on drugs or sent off to summer camp. I even went through a phase of checking out record albums, so I could learn a zillion new folk songs to drive my family crazy.
But as easy as it was to check out materials, as simple as it was to flip through the card catalogue to find the right Dewey Decimal code, it was really, really hard to return my checked-out books on time. I blamed it on my lack of consistent transportation to the library in those days, which required a long bike ride, or a trip on the back of my stepdad’s motorcycle. In later years, I attributed my constant string of overdues to the books themselves, and their pesky tendency to hide among the hundreds of books in our family’s library, or in dark, hard-to-reach places, like deep under the bed, among spare socks and loose coins.
But I know the truth.
The reason why it is so challenging to turn in library books on time, and why it’s so easy to lose them, is because they do not belong to us.
Think about it. You spend a portion of your hard-earned money to purchase your own shiny new Thing. Then you are far more likely to take care of that Thing. To nurture it. To look after it. To keep it in a safe place, so that it won’t get lost or destroyed. Why? Because it’s yours. You value the things that you feel a sense of ownership for. Or at least, you should. But library books? Those are just worn-out things that belong to everyone and no one. And so, we become careless. We fold down the pages instead of using bookmarks. We read them in the bath, not fearing water damage. We use them as makeshift coasters, or frisbees. (Okay, maybe not frisbees).
Because they don’t belong to us, we don’t cherish them.
Isn’t it kind of the same with people? We tend not to cherish the people who are outside of the little circles we build. We tend not to value the opinions of others. We tend to forget about the feelings of other people. We absorb what we want from people, then we carelessly turn away, leaving them worse than they were when we found them.
Lucky for me, I managed to scrape together my overdue library books and turn them in with a less-than-$10 late fine. Only a small fraction of some of my prior overdue fines. I paid the fees, and get to start again with a clean slate, because that’s how it works with books. People are a lot more complicated. Our carelessness can do irreparable damage. No late fee can mend the human spirit. Only love can do that.
Like library books, we don’t have ownership of other human beings. We only get to check them out — sometimes for a lifetime, and sometimes for just a little while. But while they are in our care, we can treat them with all the care of our most valuable treasures. There is no one who is worthy of less than that.