Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dropping Library Books in the Tub

I dropped a library book in the tub. Or, I should say, in the bath—because it’s not as if the tub was empty at the time. I had prepared my ritual Sunday night bath and was trying to finish Rescuing Patty Hearst by Virginia Holman, which was due on Monday. I had renewed it as many times as the library would allow but still had about 100 pages to go as I drew the bath, lamenting the fact that I had no bubbles or fancy salts to add. I compensated by filling the tub way too full and adding a few too many drops of essential lavender.

Early in the book the narrator tells a childhood story of how she once damaged a library book beyond repair. She was so embarrassed that she told the librarian she had lost the book. She paid a hefty fine and secretly kept the book, but its pages had warped and pasted together, rendering it unopenable, much less readable. I was well past this passage by the time I was dipping into my bath and feeling more submerged than usual. As I sunk in and heard the excess water trickle out the release drain, I held the book up uncomfortably high and painstakingly turned the pages of this sad story, told in the voice of a young girl held captive by her mother’s Schizophrenia.

In a bubble bath, a book’s corners may graze the bubbles, producing a light crunching sound that subconsciously tells the bather she is holding her book a bit too close to the water’s surface. This sound is more pronounced with library books, meticulously wrapped in plastic sheeting by well-trained technical services librarians. I once had a copy of Sarah Vowell’s Take the Cannoli as my bath book. It was my own paperback copy, chosen from a Borders “3 for the Price of 2” sale table before they went out of business. With your own paperback copy, the risk of wetting the edges is greater without the plastic-on-bubble warning signal, but much less dangerous. Take the Cannoli bowed and curled throughout the weeks I was reading one essay per Sunday night bath.

Determined to finish Rescuing Patty Hearst before its due date, and with the bath overfilled, I plunged ahead through the story. In it, Virginia and her sister move with their delusional mother, Molly, to a cabin in the woods where Molly pledges to fight a “secret war” and enlists the help of her two young daughters. Weeks turn into months, months turn into years, and Virginia ends up spending the better part of her adolescence in this rural community where she develops unlikely friendships by avoiding the secret war at home. One thing led to another and before I knew it, my wet, lavender-oiled hands slipped and Virginia, et.al. dropped down into the tub. While the book did not fall completely under water, the outer edges were soaked through from cover to cover.

Letting something fall when it is already on its way is one of the easiest ways to experience what Buddhists call Zen. Even a heavy dinner plate, when extracted from the dishwasher at a precarious angle with slippery hands, can be let go of peacefully. Once you resign yourself to the momentum, the imminent crash and clang as the porcelain breaks apart on the kitchen floor, and the resulting inventory change in your home furnishings, it might even provide some sense of relief to let the thing go. For a moment, and only one, you are caught in the inevitability of what is transpiring, a feeling both empty and full, and one that is easy not to fight. It rivals the experience of forgetting something, the tiny space between knowing you’ve forgotten, and being upset about it. Songwriter John Darnielle expresses it thus: “Sometimes a great wave of forgetfulness rises up and blesses me.”

I emerged from the tub, donned my bathrobe, and took the book downstairs to devise a strategy. I boiled some water and let steep a cup of Pomegranate Pizzazz tea, knowing that my customary Sunday night Sleepytime brew would be no match for the task before me. As the tea bag released its essence into the hot water, I turned the pages of the book all the way from the copyright information to the note on typeface—244 plus pages—once, and again, and again to try to keep them from sticking together. I contemplated whether archivists have a special tool for spreading the pages of books after floods and construction-related water damage, and I regretted having skipped all those courses in library school.

With my tea steamy and magenta, I grabbed our small Rubbermaid stool from the kitchen and ascended the stairs. In my bedroom closet my hairdryer hangs on the lower clothes bar, wedged on a hooked contraption that makes me feel like a clever beauty shop designer every time I use it. This self-congratulatory feeling quickly dissipated when I sat down with the book in my lap and wondered aloud how I had managed to do this awful thing: to drop a library book in the tub. Breathing deeply, I set about my task and remembered something the Buddha said:  “You cannot break the law; you can only break yourself against the law.”


Rescuing a library book that has been dropped in the tub is a process of drying and flattening. As I sat on the low plastic stool and began drying the pages, I thought of all the heavy books around that I could use for weights to produce a good-as-new library return the next day. But as I turned and blew dry, starting with the synopsis on the inside flap and working my way through to my bookmark on page 151 and beyond, I realized that any moisture left in this book overnight—and then put under pressure—would ensure a pasty and stuck-shut book in the morning. Up the edge from the page number to the header and then turn, and again, and again.

When I got to the author bio on the back flap, the cellophane fluttered in the hot, blowing air. I flipped the book backward and upside down, hair dryer still blaring, and started the process over, holding the dryer at exactly the right angle to blast each page up and down the edge, but careful not to blow all the pages back and forth. Up the edge from the bottom corner, which was now the top, all the way to the inverted page number, falling into a rhythm that allowed me to give each page individual attention but not to dwell in any one place or distract from my primary goal: to keep the pages moving.

After a few rounds of this I became aware of a layer of sweat developing under my thighs, and soon between my bathrobe and the plastic stool. I was hunched over the book and the dryer had been running for a good ten minutes. I switched the setting to low, but the dryer itself is plastic and would soon give out from the constant whirring heat I had demanded of it. I shut it off, replaced it on the closet hook mechanism, and sat in silence for a moment, seeing the pages of the book flare out like wind-blown hair. In my lap the cover art showing a woman dragging another woman by her scarf pointed up at me from a funny angle. Although the book was closed, the pages had curled so much in the drying that the closed book now formed a defiant wedge tipping left toward the spine and spilling the title sideways.

I got in bed with the book and turned every page from the title to my bookmark and read from there. The plastic coating was still hot to the touch at page 160, and into the 170s. At each chapter break I sipped my tea and then closed the book, went back to the beginning, and turned each page until I got to my bookmark, making sure they were fully dry and not sticking together. I turned the baseboard heater to its highest setting, and turned my ceiling fan on high—knowing my tea would settle somewhere in between, but trying to keep the air circulating as much as possible. Around page 195 my eyes started to droop. Despite the Pomegranate Pizzazz, I couldn’t finish.

I opened the book until the front and back covers touched and bound them together with a black elastic headband, imagining that the library might actually prefer a wet book to one bent out of shape, but continuing in my quest to make the volume as presentable as possible. With a smaller hair tie looped through the headband, I hooked the foreign-looking object to a clothes hanger, which I then hung as close to the baseboard heater as I could without risking letting it fall and start a fire. Before I turned out the light I made sure that each page was its own little lavender-scented entity, and not clinging to any others.

On Monday morning I finished the book, again turning from the beginning to my bookmark, and by the end feeling satisfied that all the moisture had evaporated and the crunchy pages, wild as they were, were not going to form sticky conglomerates in the library book drop. I put the elastic headband around the open edge of the book to contain the unruly mass, and set it to rest for a few hours under the combined weight of The Random House Unabridged Dictionaryand an enormous photography book, Diane Arbus’ Revelations—14.6 pounds of smooth paper smothering the yellowed Holman book whose weight, when dry, did not even register on my bathroom scale.


That afternoon I walked right up to the book deposit and dropped my ruffled copy of Rescuing Patty Hearst into the dark depths of the library’s return system. Then I went inside and checked out several more books, took them home, and made sure to keep them away from the tub.

On Thursday I collected the mail and found an ecru, textured envelope (the kind my History of the Book professor would call “chain-lined paper”) with the blue insignia of Prince George’s County Memorial Library System emblazoned in the upper left: a generic book open on its spine with individual pages radiating in all directions. My name was carefully printed in black ink in the center of the envelope, and the postmark was one day old. The letter had traveled more miles than necessary—from the library ten blocks away, to the central mail facility, in a truck along my postal carrier’s daily route, and finally to my house—all in the space of two or three days.

As I reached for a letter opener, I already knew: I had failed to rescue Patty Hearst, and this communiqué would outline my penance. I slit the envelope flap swiftly and sheepishly, standing alone in my kitchen with the consequences of my actions. Inside was a single sheet, with the same logo on top, but in black and white, hovering over the words “Notice of Damaged Material.” All caps. Underlined. Bold. It was a filled-in form, more than a letter, and I wondered which format carried greater shame. Clearly, I was not the first citizen of Prince George’s County to damage library property. The form even had a section labeled Type of Damage, and “Water Stain” was the first choice. I was just an average library book damager, falling into the most common type of destruction, with not even a hand-written footnote or asterisk in the margin to describe the shape of my transgression in a unique way. The bottom of the form contained a section titledLocation of Damage, and I earned two checkmarks in that area—one for “Inside” and another for “Entire Item.” I made a mental note not to point out this redundancy when I went in to pay my fine.

I went on Friday. I approached the circulation desk with my checkbook and summoned my most cheerful voice. “I need to pay for a damaged item,” I said quietly, removing the stark white form from its warm and creamy chain paper envelope. The librarian took a look and said, “Okay, I will have to look for the item. Just a minute…” As I waited, I considered the policy: The extent of the damage was such that the item(s) are no longer usable in the Library’s collection. That’s fair. If I were taking Rescuing Patty Hearst off the shelf today and it unfurled into a curly mess just by being released from two adjacent books, I would probably scoff and reshelve it. The material will be held for one year at the branch library, during which time you may inspect the item(s) to confirm damage. That would not be necessary. As the librarian emerged from the back office I recognized the wedge-shaped item with its edge flaring open like a mouth with too much to say. Once paid, you can take and keep the material should you wish. She laid it on the counter and I got to contemplate it for a few minutes while my account was being updated and some amount of data showing that I had signed a check for $23.00 was typed into the system.

The book was in no-man’s-land at this point. It still had a record in the catalog, a bar code on the back plastic, even a line of ink stamps dating back to 2007 when it was last checked out as part of an analog universe. I imagined it coming home to roost next to my Terry Gross book and my copy of Ellen Burstyn’s autobiography, its tiny typewritten “BIO HOLMAN” sticker on the spine betraying the book’s origins as municipal property. Even before my check cleared,Rescuing Patty Hearst would officially be mine.

I was issued two receipts: an electronic one for “Damaged Item” that resembled the Date Due reminders I routinely print at the self-checkout station, and a small purple-on-white cash register receipt time-stamped and announcing “Fines” in the left-hand column. The librarian stapled the receipts together and then, with a single adept stroke of a Sharpie, sliced through the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System bar code on the back of the book: item 31268087944365 had been permanently removed from circulation.


Twenty-three dollars is a lot to pay for the luxury of reading in the tub. I paid less than half that for the Sarah Vowell book. Will I reread the damaged book—this time, perhaps, focusing on its subtitle, “Memories from a Decade Gone Mad”? Will I reorder its passages and read the story chronologically? Will I loan it to friends and urge them to keep it as long they need to, secretly hoping to never see it again? Will I write to Virginia Holman and confess my deed, adding something cheesy about how I “couldn’t have dropped a better book in the tub”?

 I suppose I can do any of these things with the book, at any time. I own it now.

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