Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Long Overdue

Arthur Boycott, FRS (1877-1938)

Though difficult to define with precision, the “American dream”, which featured large in political discussions during the recent electoral campaigns, holds to the belief in the possibility of the steady, long-term, progressive improvement in the material circumstances of the American family.  I have perhaps more than once commented in these essays on the huge differences in the life led by my grandparents, all born in the nineteenth century,  and the lives of my grandchildren, mostly born in the twenty-first.  Without presuming to touch upon either the economic possibility or theological probity of infinitely expanding material prosperity, I have begun a list of things that were common in my youth and now are rare or non-existent. 

            It once was a very common experience for a child from a neighboring family to appear at the door, with basket, bowl, jar, or cup in hand, with a polite request from the neighbor-mother to “borrow” an egg, a stick of margarine, a cup of sugar or some other food staple.  Such items were invariably scrupulously returned (or, one hopes, replaced) with elaborate thanks.  I noted early that there was a kind of hierarchy in borrowing.  No child would ever appear in search of a twenty-dollar bill, or even seventy-five cents to buy a dozen eggs.  There were indeed private loans of money, but they were a rather solemn, adult-male sort of thing, always arranged outside of my sight and hearing.

            No doubt professional sociologists and anthropologists have studied this sort of thing.  Certain items are so culturally borrowable as to threaten any meaningful distinction between loan and theft.  Umbrellas seem to fall into this category.  But in my particular line of work it is the book that most readily comes to mind.

            A woman named Barbara Roston just returned to the Brooklyn Public Library a copy of Gone with the Wind that had been overdue since 1959.  At the time she checked it out, Ms. Roston was fifteen years old and a sales-girl, or sales pre-woman, at Macy’s Department Store.  She simply forgot about it for approximately seventy years.  Fortunately the book’s lack of a barcode presented the librarians with such knotty technical problems that they entirely forgave her the accumulated thousand-dollar fine.  There is quite a bit of sociological interest here.  Are there still fifteen-year-old Americans whose idea of a big time after a hard day’s work is to hunker down with 400,000-word novels without any pictures but with lots of three-syllable words?  I have my doubts.

            But even Ms. Roston’s liberal attitude toward book-borrowing seems somewhat constrained when contrasted with that of Professor Arthur Boycott, FRS (1877-1938).  Alice Gillett, the granddaughter of this once eminent British scientist, recently discovered among her inherited possessions a copy of The Microscope and Its Revelations (1856) by William B. Carpenter.  This book manifestly was the property of the library of the Hereford Cathedral School, where her grandfather had been a pupil between 1886 and 1894.  Hence it was overdue at the very least by 122 years.  Even worse, it appears that the book, though removed from the library, had perhaps never actually been checked out.  Ms. Gillett hastened to return it forthwith.  Given the facts that boffins are notoriously absent-minded, and that certain improvements in microscope technology since 1854 have rendered Carpenter’s volume somewhat less than indispensable, the British authorities, too. forgave Boycott’s estate the hefty fine of £7,446.
            Actually, it is very hard to keep track of one’s library books with zeal, especially if you have scores of them borrowed and at hand at any given moment, and especially if they are the kind of book that very few other people actually read, and fewer still have the will to recall.  After you have had a visiting book in your home office for a year or two, you develop a nearly unconscious attitude of surrogate ownership.  I feel morally certain that by about the year 1900 Professor Boycott assumed that he really did own The Microscope and Its Revelations.

            My personal record, which is probably about average for senior scholars in the humanities, is roughly a hundred to two.  That is, I have actually lost two library books.  During those same long years I have lost roughly a hundred of my own.  I could explain to you how losing the library’s two books was not my fault, how they cannot really be lost, how they are bound to arise intact at the Last Trump from some surprising corner to justify their borrower.  What I cannot explain is the vanished hundred of my own.  First you forget exactly what book you loaned to whom.  Then the who part disappears entirely from the mind, followed not too much later by the what part.  The books are simply gone with the wind.

When flesh fails one’s sole hope is spirit.  I have hanging above one of the door of my “study” a facsimile of a sign to be found in various of the old Spanish libraries.  It announces the special excommunication “reserved by His Holiness against any people who…swipe any book, whether parchment or paper.”  Who is to say it doesn’t work, that without it my losses would have been two hundred?  The Puritans who founded the great American academic libraries were hardly less severe.  There used to be a notice posted at our circulation desk that read:  “To err is human; to forgive is not library policy”.