School’s out for the summer which means all the school library books have been returned. At least all of mine have been returned. I know this because I’m very careful about library books. Maybe I would always have been that way. I’m a big fan of books in general but I also know one of the major downsides of a library book is only one person can check it out at a time, although two people can read it if they’re willing to share, and two people can even read it simultaneously if one of them is that creepy guy who stares over my shoulder on the bus. Anyway humiliation instilled an early sense of respect for library books in me. Maybe things have changed but it seems that when I was a kid humiliation was a favorite topic of adults who wanted to get kids to do something, or stop doing something, usually finding ways to turn the pre-adolescent herd on one of its own, which is ironic considering how much adults would lecture us about the dangers of giving in to peer pressure once we became adolescents, but that’s another story.
I distinctly remember checking out Daniel Pinkwater’s Lizard Music from the school library for a number of reasons. First of all it was featured on a PBS show about books that was required viewing for all of my fourth grade class. Not that getting a bunch of kids to watch television, especially in the middle of the school day, is all that hard. And what I heard intrigued me because, while most of the books we were given were pretty straightforward, Lizard Music sounded weird. This would turn out to not be true—Lizard Music wasn’t weird. It was very weird. Extremely and hilariously weird. Also it was about lizards which was enough to get me interested. That’s the other reason I remember checking it out. And being so weird it was a little hard for me to get into at first. Even though I would come to love it I started slowly so I may have kept it a little longer than I was supposed to. Once a week we were taken to the school library and would have to turn in whatever book we’d checked out the previous week. I ended up hanging on to Lizard Music a couple of extra weeks and that was fine because no one else wanted to check it out. Then I finished it and although I couldn’t remember when exactly I knew I’d returned it.
Most libraries have a policy of keeping patron records secret. They respect the privacy of what books people check out, and some have even gone to court to keep this information secret. And even after seeing the movie Se7en I have a hard time believing any crimes have ever been solved or useful evidence gathered based on what anybody’s checked out from a library. Or maybe I just have this knee-jerk reaction about protecting the privacy of what people read because each week the school librarian would read out to the entire class who’d checked out what book. And at first this wasn’t so bad. It was an early and low-tech version of “Here are your recommendations based on what your friends are reading…”
Then it became a weekly torture. “Chris Waldrop,” the school librarian would say each week, “you still have Lizard Music checked out.” No, I insisted, I’d returned it. I checked the shelves in vain which wasn’t that hard because the school library was about the size of a large closet. And then I went home and went through every book I owned. No sign of it. I was sure I’d returned it. And we’d go through this each week. The school librarian would glare at me over her half-moon spectacles. I swear she wore those and the same gray cardigan well into May. And the kids around me all started snickering each week when we went through our inevitable exchange and pretty soon it felt like the entire school knew I’d stolen a library book.
At the end of the school year my mother had to pay for the book even though I kept protesting my innocence. But at least that was the end of it. I went on into summer and forgot about it until the next year when Lizard Music was back on the shelf in the school library.
It seems some bonehead had returned it and a bunch of other books to the public library. They couldn’t tell who’d slipped it in even though at that point I thought everybody knew I’d committed grand theft fiction so they just mailed it to the school library.
I kind of wish they’d just called the school librarian. She would have been happy to point the finger at me.