Reflections on a delinquent past

Sat, 09/17/2016 - 7:45am

Though most of my life has been lived on the straight and narrow, the time has come for me to confess that I have had something of a checkered past.

(“And it all has to do with books,” He-Who-shares-everything-with-me blurts out.) 

As most of my friends know, I have something of a book obsession, which is benign compared with more egregious compulsions.

As a youngster, I didn’t recognize it; I simply loved books, read them voraciously and only occasionally was a bit tardy in returning them. My energetic young mother first introduced me to books when she toted me into the local library as an infant. My little world was vastly expanded by the stream of books my Mom brought home.

She was an avid reader and the shelves next to the living-room fireplace my Dad was afraid to use were lined with her favorite books. (His was an overactive imagination that guarded us from disaster at every turn.)

During my teen years, I selected from the weighty volumes of Tolstoy and Victor Hugo. Discovering such treasures as “Anna Karenina” and “L’Homme Qui Rit” (The Man Who Laughs), I hid away immersed in illicit love affairs or the ugly realities of abusive power under a royalist regime. 

While I followed a heroine on the trains in and out of Moscow, my mother worried that I would never leave the sofa or have a date. 

She needn’t have worried, for by the time I was 18, He-Who had liberated me from my worrying Mom and overprotective Dad. We ran away to exotic Colorado, living in the shadows of the Rockies. 

Therein ensued a tale: it began with the birth of our first two children. Friends emphatically told me I would have no time for books. That was intolerable. 

So it was, as though to refute some immutable law, I devised a rebellion: I carried a small paperback of “Leaves of Grass” with me from rock to rock as I followed our toddlers around a neighborhood in Stamford, Conn. 

Into the dark side

So when did this idyllic picture turn delinquent? I date it to the early 1960s when I took a five-week class in existentialism offered by the local Unitarian Church. There I was introduced to Jean Paul Sartre, who took me 360 degrees away from Whitman into the dark, foreboding world of human choices. 

First reading Sartre’s novels, “Nausea”and “The Age of Reason,” I became determined to crack his philosophical work. So it was I borrowed the 800-page tome entitled “Being and Nothingness” from the local library. 

After the first two allowed weeks, I renewed the book, and renewed again, finally using up all renewals. I could not relinquish my hold on the book, nor its hold on me.

I began ignoring over-due notices! Guilt crept into all the receptors waiting for guilt to seep into. Clinging to Sartre’s pivotal work, I simplistically distilled it to a digestible core—that we must make our own authentic choices, thereby creating whatever meaning exists in life.

Finally, like the craven societal outcast I had become, one night I approached the library drop box and deposited Sartre back into the hands of legitimate guardians. I slipped in an envelope of coins to pay my fines. 

By Sartre’s strict guidelines, I had acted un-authentically. Clearly an existential afterlife awaited me: I was headed straight for “No Exit.” (Sartre’s play in which three miserable individuals are condemned to spend eternity together in a room from which there is no exit.)

An affair with Thoreau

Sadly, I did not immediately learn my lesson. With two children still under six, I had this affair with Henry David Thoreau.

Though I had my own copy of “Walden,” the library had the two-volume set of the “Journals” — weighing five pounds each — definitely un-tote-able.

Once they were under my roof, Thoreau’s astonishing eye and ear for the intricacies of the world around us drew me in. I could not resist, for example, his October 26, 1853 entry, in which he writes:

“I was going home to dinner, past a shallow pool, which was green with springing grass ... when it occurred to me that I heard the dream of the toad. It rang through and filled all the air... Loud and prevailing as it is, most men do not notice it all. It is to them, perchance, a sort of simmering and seething of all nature. That afternoon, the dream of the toads rang through the elms by Little River and affected the thoughts of men, though they were not conscious that they heard it.”

How could I return that book? My best friend rationalized I had fallen so in love with the set that emotionally it became mine. I countered this could do as an argument to legitimize theft. (I was not entirely out of my senses.) 

After months of unregulated dipping into “Journal”pages, I made yet one more surreptitious visit to the book drop in the night.

The last episode of this sordid affair took place while I taught at a Connecticut University. By the end of semester, faculty were to return outstanding library books or the Bursar’s office would withhold salaries.

On learning my check was being held, I gathered up my books presenting them to a librarian who sought to make clear the depth of her distaste for my tardiness.

She called the Bursar and loudly announced, “I have a delinquent professor here. Her name is...” Clearly she needed to put me in my place, and because of my devious past, I expect I deserved her contempt.

A few years ago, the same friend who’d defended my attempt to kidnap Thoreau, sent me word that research indicated I was simply afflicted with something called bibliomania: Not to worry, though there was no pill for it; I simply had a disorder that could be explained.

Consider it explained.