I was back in Vancouver, and making my rounds through the libraries to snatch up books I’d put on hold while I was away. It was going pretty well — #1 on the list was The Vital Question in preparation for a book club meeting I had in a few days — but it was the hard cover (heavy and bulky). I managed to find the soft cover at another branch, and realized that each of these copies had one of my bookmarks. I’d taken out both of these books before.
I returned the hard cover, and held onto the soft cover — I hadn’t actually realized I’d lost that bookmark, but was glad to have it again. Later, I would meet the author and have the library copy signed, and later still I would fall asleep on the bus and again lose this bookmark that I was so very fond of.
But that’s not what this story is about.
A couple of decades ago, I found out about The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, and I’d been meaning to read it ever since. Not like: I thought it looked good and forgot about it, and then saw it again — I thought about it often. Since I was a kid, I would check used bookstores, and look it up at the library — it wasn’t in, there was a big waiting list, or it was priced higher than I wanted to pay. It has continously been on my list of things to read, and I have been bringing it up in conversation since I was a teenager, even though I was only aware of the premise.
Well, on this day, with my lost (and soon to be re-lost) bookmark, pressed in the soft cover volume of a book that would soon be signed by the author that I would soon meet — on this day, I knew that there was a copy of Red Mars, the first of the trilogy, at this branch of the library.
But there were actually, two copies of the book right next to each other, bright and red on shelf. I didn’t know which one to take. They were the same edition, new-looking, perfect. It seemed, for some reason, like a big decision.
Eventually I just grabbed one — and inside was a $20 bill. Wow! I snatched it up and soon regretted not checking to see which page it was marking, but I took the book and continued to browse — it seems strange but appropriate that I did not check the other copy. Who knows what was in that other book, but I’d made my choice.
That wasn’t the only thing that happened that day at the library — it was an incredibly eventful excursion — but who puts $20 in a library book. Moreso, does the kind of person that borrows books from the library the kind of person with a $20 book mark? And what were they trying to tell me? Which page was it in??
I took this as a sign to pay my small library fine. If you must know, I wasn’t finished a book that was due, and could not renew it. Rather than return it and wait weeks to take it out again, I took the 30¢/day fine for the few days it took me to finish the book — in the end I think it was worth it, because I didn’t think very highly of the book (How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett), and had no intention of purchasing it — but I surely couldn’t not finish it. No, if I was going to tell people about how I didn’t like it, I would have to have read the whole thing quite thoroughly.
I’m telling you this because I never return books late to the Library. The Library is a sacred thing, for me, and I take the associated courtesies quite seriously. I always return my books on time, and if I finish a book well before it is due, I try to bring it back as soon as possible so that it will be available for other people.
The last time I remember getting a library fine, it’s because Christy Wark couldn’t take out a book with her card (warning sign!), and I took it out for her on my card. Big. Mistake.
She returned that book late, resulting in my first ever truancy with any library. I never lent out my library card again — no matter how trustworthy the person might have seemed.
And so maybe I felt guilty about this $4 fine on my account — the first time I’d ever intentionally held a book past its due date — not without reason, but overdue nonetheless.
And maybe this was the Library’s way telling me not to worry about it, as it winked and handed me this book I’d been wanting to read since I was a kid, with breakfast and the late fee tucked inside.