EDEN would be banal without the snake. The library, with its hermetic quiet, watchful librarians, and bookish air of order and sanity, inspired my first transgressions.
The library card in my grade school years permitted two books to be taken out for two weeks. I could read a novel overnight, exams be damned.
My dilemma was waiting for books I coveted to be returned. Every card owner could renew for one more week. And borrowing privileges fell only on one weekday per grade level.
Once, the library acquired a series on the lives of saints. Each book narrated in luminous text and illustration the ordinary life and extraordinary sacrifices of a girl who later became a saint.
Borrowing the books about Saints Agatha and Bertille, I stashed St. Monica behind references on science, which I couldn’t imagine anyone giving up their bedtime for. A week later, I felt around the hollow space behind the tomes. The patroness of musicians had evaporated behind rocks and minerals!
Librarian friends told me years later how shelving work is usually split among books that are returned to the circulation desk, left after use on the tables, and squirreled away behind other books in other sections. Blind then to the irony of violating honesty and fairness with a saint’s storybook, I imagined ecclesiastical music playing sorrowfully while I turned out science in search of St. Monica.
This youthful transgression surfaced while I read Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book.” When the Los Angeles Public Library opened in a modern edifice on July 15, 1926, criminality shot up among the staid stacks:
“At the end of the year, library security reported they had apprehended 57 ‘mutilators of books’; 105 people who had written in books; 73 who engaged in general bad behavior; 23 forgers; eight people who were caught hiding books; and 10 who had switched their books’ due dates.”
Of the offenders, 63 were prosecuted while “six were ‘judged to have diseased brains’ and sent for psychiatric treatment.”
Criminality wasn’t the only weed sprouting among the stacks. Orlean writes that when this library first opened in January 1873, the rules were “schoolmarmish and scoldy”: no reading of “too many novels” lest one become a “fiction fiend;” books judged to be “dubious,” “trashy,” “ill-written” or “flabby” were excluded; no woman or child was allowed inside the library; and “ladies” went to a special room to read only magazines.
Despite this chronicle of misses, Orlean captures why a library is transformative as reading: ambling along, one can chance unexpectedly, if not always pleasantly, on oneself.