a reckoning at the library

In an effort to save both trees in the forest and space in the house, I’ve been trying to borrow instead of buy my books. Unfortunately, the public library doesn’t always cut it, so I decided to renew my visitor library card at our local university. It’s a pretty familiar place. I earned my MA from this school and eventually worked there as an adjunct after the phd.

As an esteemed alumnus, I get a discount on the card. That’s a fair trade, right? A 50% discount ($50 annual savings) for me, in exchange for the thousands I spent taking their graduate classes–which, in turn, prepared me to teach GenEd English classes at a 75% discount for them. I wonder how many years of visiting-library-card-savings I’ll have to accumulate before I break even?

But really, I’m not here to gripe. It’s all about the library today. When I go in there, I remember why the university held me captive for so long. I can smell the ideas that linger on the shelves; I can hear them scratching at the dust that gathers like fleas about their necks. They’re waiting for me to come and collect them, I know it.

Of course, the time came during the phd when the library began to feel like a dungeon–a place where I sat hopeless, shackled, and plain old missing so many beautiful spring days. The sun beckoning on the back of my neck, the breeze wafting just so, the blue sky singing, and I’d disappear through those doors under the weight of some drummed up deadline. Why did I take it all so seriously!?

When I walk into the library now, it feels fresh and promising again, the way it did in my early graduate school days. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I can ride up on my bike, drop off my books, and ride blissfully off into the dazzle. No deadlines. No obligations.

Well…there was one small obligation today. After I renewed my visitor’s account a few weeks ago, the librarian discovered a fine left over from my last account. She informed me of this today. It seems I owe late fees on the books I borrowed during the final weeks of dissertation writing…nine years ago! For a minute my heart stopped. How many thousands would I owe now? I prepared to run, lamenting my decision to lock up my bike.

Shockingly, the total came to only $25. That couldn’t be right, could it? Of course, I didn’t argue. I figured I would count it toward the years of “free” teaching I did for them.

I took out my wallet to pay, then thought to ask: “Could you tell me: what were the books?”

She printed out the list. And there they were, as if time hadn’t passed: Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pictures of Innocence by Anne Higonnet, and Ronald Reagan the Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology by Michael Rogin.

Michael Rogin. Once a name I muttered regularly through gritted teeth in my sleep, and I wouldn’t have remembered he existed if you’d asked me yesterday. I had used these books while finishing my introduction and conclusion (two chapters that I wrote at the same time – a great little trick if you’re still dissertating!).

Looking at the names now–so foreign, so familiar–I couldn’t figure out what I felt. Nothing? Nostalgia? Sadness? Anger? And how surreal to be standing here paying this fine so many years later. What would I have said if you’d told me when I dropped those books victoriously into the return bin that it would be nine years before I would return to this place that had been my home, my prison?

I think it would have been a devastating piece of news. In those weeks after my defense, I don’t think my feet ever touched the ground. I knew the job prospects were grim, but I let myself enjoy it anyway. I celebrated not only because I’d finished, but also because I really cared about my research on the trope of childhood innocence in American literature. Things had come together so well in the final weeks, and I believed I had written something that truly contributed to both American literary scholarship and to perceptions of national identity in the–

blah blah blah blah…

Yes, I really did feel those things, and maybe they were even true, or would have been if I’d contintued my career. But I didn’t, and perhaps nine years is enough time to come to terms with that, to recognize that things have turned out for the better. Perhaps nine years is enough time to be able to pay the fine with little more than a laugh, an eye roll, and the gumption to call it even.

Which leaves me alone in those stacks, so stuffed to brimming with words and theories and stories, to explore them at will, freed by the gift of nothing owed.

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