I remember the frigid winter night, leaning on the fence in my front yard, watching the smoke rising and the bonfire flames leaping upward from the church parking lot half a block away, and the sacred hymns carried off-key to my frozen ears. Early the next morning, I strolled down to the deserted churchyard, hot embers still raising little wisps of steam in the melting snow amongst the blackened paper. I bent and picked up a singed copy of "Macbeth" with the word witchcraft scrawled across the torn cover in black marker. I slipped the play into my pocket and took it home, placing it upon a basement shelf along with some other books which surely would not pass muster with the library board. I gazed at my modest collection of Conrad, Voltaire, Rand, Twain and Steele.
Not long after the book-burning, I went to the Huntingtown Branch Library to borrow a good novel to read over a holiday weekend. I wandered into the building for the first time in months and stopped short. The shelves had taken on the appearance of a toothless old man. Great gaps of emptiness were interspersed with random clumps of dusty books. The two computer terminals were covered. Except for a young and eager-looking volunteer librarian and myself, the place was barren. I made a quick circuit of the rooms, trying to notice what remained and what had vanished. Much of the reference section seemed to be intact, as did the bookcases filled with American history. It was my impression that the religion section had expanded, and I noticed that, where before there had been only a couple of copies of the King James Bible, now an entire bookcase had been filled with them. On a bottom shelf lay about a dozen copies of texts on other, minority religions. Most of these had titles like Why the Jews Killed Jesus, and The Blasphemy of Islam.
The science department appeared to be largely intact, though there were obvious spaces where entire subjects were missing, most notably the life sciences, evolution and books on human sexuality. On my way to the fiction stacks, I passed the children's reading room, a bright and sunny alcove with scaled-down tables and beanbag chairs. I guessed that it would have taken me hardly five minutes to count every juvenile book. There seemed to be a great number of Doctor Seuss stories, along with what appeared to be complete sets of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and that ancient boy-scientist, Tom Swift. I couldn't find a single tome by my own personal boyhood favorite, J.K. Rowling. Instead, dozens of Bible picture books had replaced the stories that had scared me, thrilled me and fired my youthful imagination. In fact, there was nothing that would absorb any young reader over the age of nine. The child protectors were on the job.
Adjacent to the children's alcove rose the fiction stacks. I nearly wept. I found no Kurt Vonnegut, Elmore Leonard, or John Irving. There were plenty of westerns, most written decades ago, and lots of action-adventure and war novels. Though I had no fondness for them, I noticed that all the romance paperbacks were gone, too. It struck me as blackly humorous that sex had been banished from the library but that it was still possible to read of death, violence and destruction. I picked out an old mystery by Donald E. Westlake, one I had read and enjoyed before.
At the checkout desk, the pretty librarian was waiting for me. She was cute and curvaceous and wore no ring, so I tried to work up the nerve to ask her for her phone number.
"Did you find what you wanted?" She had short, black hair framing deep blue eyes, highlighted with just a dash of eye shadow. I handed her my book and library card, smiling my best.
"Oh, goodness," she pouted when she looked at the card. "You'll need a new one."
"I just renewed it last year," I protested gently, my smile faltering.
"Yes, I know, but we're updating our files and you'll have to fill out this form first. It'll only take a minute."
She pushed the two-page application across the desk along with a number-two pencil and stood waiting. I sighed deeply and began to fill it in. In addition to my name, address and phone number came questions pertaining to my employment, church affiliation, social security number, reading interests, and a space to enter three local references. I filled it all out. I don't know why I did it, as it rankled me and I didn't see the point of going to all this trouble to check out a book I'd already read. I slid the completed form back across the high wooden desk where she scooped it up and glanced it over.
"Thank you, Mr. Kolzig," she said, gathering my name from the form. "We'll be happy to hold your book for you until the Library Board meets and approves your application. They'll mail you your new card and you can come back and get your book in a couple of weeks." She held the Westlake mystery tightly under one arm, smiling sweetly at me. I stared at her stupidly. "Is there something else?" she inquired.
"No. No, thanks," was my reply, and I made for the door, no longer interested in securing her phone number or the novel. For a moment, I considered going back to retrieve my application, tearing it to shreds and saying the hell with it. I didn't though, and I'm sorry to say that I've lived to regret it.
We ask ourselves occasionally why we do not stand up to authority in the face of outrageous rules and regulations. I'm afraid I don't know why some men bend while others break. I bent to the will of the Library Board, as I had before navigated the requirements of the motor vehicle department, unemployment office and even the dog-licensing bureau. We do it because we are obligated to, in order to maintain a civilized society, and if we refuse we are denied a driving permit, job benefits or a pet. Or in this case, a library book. Throughout history good people have risen to shout, "NO!" Rosa Parks stood her ground, as did Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and a handful of American colonists in 1775. They all vowed not to surrender to tyranny, and most paid with their lives. Yet, they changed the world. I was not one of them. I deeply wish I was, but I've always been a private person, not a rabble-rouser. Give me a great leader whose beliefs and objectives I share and I will follow, but don't expect me to pick up the flag and lead the charge. In the face of the enemy, I will fold my tent and quietly retreat to the sanctity of some bar, where I can drink my beer and commiserate with the other patrons about the injustice of the system, and then to go back out into the night and continue to live within the rules of that system. Don't make trouble. Don't stand out. Don't complain too loudly. You'll only become a bigger target for them.
As promised, my library card arrived in the mail, but I never went back to pick up my copy of Westlake's crime novel. I had bent to the rules, and I felt secretly humiliated. I burned the card, a private act of rebellion, and vowed to myself never to enter that abridged building again. And, as it happened, I never did.
Copyright C. Lee Dravis, 2009
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