Nothing nags at you like an overdue book. For half a century, I have dwelt in an unreasonable terror of that ten-cent fine. There were changes along the way, of course. Online renewing thrilled me—this was all I had to do? Click a box? But oh, when someone else wanted that book, and my gratification was yanked away, and I had to close it half-finished and trudge back to the library with it….
When someone else wants that book. The prospect now worries me in a new way, but for a good and noble reason. Our town’s library has joined the cool kids in rescinding fines. No more grudging handovers of that shiny dime, or the dollars that soon followed. No more sweaty-palmed kids ushered to the desk clutching the book that had been shoved under their bed for three months. No more hanging on to books because it now feels like too late to return them. No more shame.
A redemption, all round. Except—what about when I want a book and somebody sits on it all winter just to feel leisurely? Or to write a poem it inspires? Or because one thousand easy recipes simmer between its covers?
The books will come back eventually, the librarians assure me. They are delighted not to have to play the heavy (so not in character) to extract ten cents. This change is happening across the country, because even small fines can keep people out of the library, acting as a “roadblock to the people who stand to benefit the most from free Library resources, such as teens and low-income families.”
Remembering the rapt upturned faces during library storytimes, I think about all the children who feel alone or isolated or need to crawl into a book and find a world bigger than the one their parents fell into. Then, standing at the checkout desk, I notice one of the older kids who use the library (hard to recognize when he is not on his skateboard) and think about all the teenagers who need books’ knowledge and wisdom and empathy and solace. Not to mention all the adults who are scared or sick and looking for answers or, at the very least, distraction from their pain.
The petulance inside me notches down. I can wait a week for that bestseller. And if it does not come back in time for book club, I can bloody well buy it. As my selfish panic subsides, I realize what a joy it is that we all still want books. Physical books, the kind that have weight in your hand and softened paper and thoughtful, arty covers you like seeing next to your bed.
A friend works for a publishing house, and when we talk about the end of fines, I mutter that physical books will be gone soon anyway—even textbooks are all loaded onto the kids’ Chromebooks now because it is cheaper. He shakes his head. “It’s not, actually. Most of them get printed overseas, and it’s pretty easy to handle print and distribution. Production costs—royalties, editing, and formatting—are the same, and ebooks have additional costs such as software development, online hosting, server and network maintenance, reformatting for multiple formats, customer service, and technical support.”
It takes me a minute to adjust my assumptions. “Then why all the electronic textbooks?”
“Academic publishers got into ebooks for a variety of reasons. There was—and is—a perception that ‘digital is the future, so we can’t be seen as old-fashioned’—even though surveys and sales show that the demand for print isn’t diminishing the way everyone was predicting. But I’d say the biggest factor has been the idea that selling—more like renting—access to an ebook for a limited duration—one semester, say, or one academic year—is a hit to the used-book market. Publishers get no cut from used book sales, but by renting out the online version, they get money from each student.”
Whoa. A variable I had never considered. My affection for physical books wells up again. They are to be treasured—and if not tenderly kept, then put back into circulation as quickly as possible. Like unexpected kindnesses, most books should warm us for a time, then move into the next pair of outstretched arms. There is no longer any need to hold out for Amnesty Week.
Still, I was conditioned by a library conscience formed at age six and shaped by decades of stern warnings, and I feel a bit at sea with the rules gone. The book I am reading at the moment is due back. Do I bother to renew it electronically? And if I have no more renewals, do I keep it and finish or bring it back anyway? It seems that only money, not respect for other readers, has driven my actions all these years, a terrible realization on which I prefer not to linger. Money is the yardstick for value, right? And what has more value than books? My shallow morals mesh nicely with our transactional society. Screw the moral subtleties: Can I finish the book? Will I be able to live with myself if I keep it past the due date?
The book renews, and as I click the box, it occurs to me that I might enjoy this new arrangement. Who better to trust than other book lovers? The warm, convivial community of borrowers will be even more relaxed now, less furtive. Maybe next they will allow coffee in the library and turn a blind eye to dogears and peanut butter smears. The library will be the friend who says, “Aw, don’t worry about it. No big deal,” and waves away all transgressions. Books will bear the marks of their readers’ lives.
A glowing, generous thought. So why do I keep flipping back to dour churchlady? Because I am nervous. Not about me keeping my book another day without penalty (lovely perk) but about everybody else keeping theirs. Books tend to wander. They slide under car seats, get stuck by mistake in the bookshelf, get burned, get buried.
“The rabbi says it’s good for the departed/if religious texts go down/into the grave with them,” writes the poet Henry Shukman, “so the soul feels less estranged.”
A lovely thought. But the library books must stay above ground. All of us need books that keep us from feeling estranged. The more they are shared, the better.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.