Monday, June 2, 2008

Stealing Library Books

I am totally against the practice of stealing library books, but I must admit that I did it once.

When I was in high school, visiting the library, my favorite teacher Mr. Mulvey suggested I check out the book “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. I did, and in the process I fell in love. This was a book unlike any other I had read. It was powerful and challenging. It made me question my world. It made me hunger for more books like this. And it ignited a deep affection for Ellison, an author who could do such amazing things with words. Ultimately, that book is the reason I became an English teacher.

While I was reading “The Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison died. On the one hand I knew this was really nothing more than a strange coincidence, but it triggered something in my imagination. I began to feel more than the usual connection to that book. I kept renewing it long after I had read the pages twice over. I convinced myself that Ralph Ellison himself wanted me to keep it.

I didn’t want to steal it. I went through the rational process of asking the librarian if I could buy it. She thought this was a crazy proposition as I could buy a copy at any local bookstore. But I wanted THAT book and she refused my offer. This left me no choice, and the way I saw it I’d pay for it in library fees later on. So one day I walked out of the library after renewing it once more and never brought it back.

I carried that book with me everywhere. It was my constant companion throughout college and each year I dedicated part of my summer to reading it again. Every year my life experiences brought new insight to the pages and I loved it all the more.

Then I became a teacher, and though my students’ reading levels made the text cumbersome, I loved sharing passages from the book whenever appropriate. At the end of one school year a student who’d really made progress came and asked me if he could borrow THE BOOK for the summer. He really liked the pieces we’d read in class and wanted to try the whole thing.

I should have said no, but what kind of teacher would I have been to shut down that desire to learn? Predictably, he didn’t come back the next school year and I never saw my beloved book again. To this day I can still see the pages where I scrawled my epiphanies over the years, and there are whole passages I can still recite from memory.

I figure the disappearance of “The Invisible Man” was my payback for stealing a library book in the first place. But I like to imagine passing that book on was my way of continuing a powerful chain of events Mr. Mulvey started long ago.