The Hennepin County Library System has announced that it no longer will charge fees for overdue books. You know this has the Grumpy-American community duly riled:
"It's a bad thing! Encourages sloth! You know what I felt when I was a kid and my book was late? Shame. Red-faced shame! I'll never forget how the librarian looked at me — she was disappointed in me, and I felt that she was disappointed in my parents, as well. I never forgot that. Put an egg in her tailpipe that night.
"Also, a fine teaches a kid how the real world works. In the cold, hard world outside your precious li-ber-ary, there's fines galore, and no one's going to wave away your $42,034 late-tax penalty, and believe me, I've tried. When these kids lose their house because they didn't return 'Curious George,' they'll know how the world works."
Perhaps that's overstating things, but it raises a valid question: How do we get people to return books on time if there's no penalty for being late? Perhaps chronic offenders could have restrictions placed on their borrowing: "You've been three months late with everything you've checked out, so for the next month, you can check out only books that start with the letter 'X.' "
"Joke's on you, I've always wanted to read a biography of Persian monarch Xerxes! I'll take 'Xerxes: God-Man of the East.' "
"It's checked out. And overdue."
Or we could remove the last chapter of every book and give it to the person if they return the book a day early. You'd have people thronging the counter, waving books — "I've got 'Moby Dick' here, and I have to know if he gets the whale!" "I checked out this history of World War II, and now I don't know who won!"
If this doesn't work, there are drastic measures. If other people are waiting for the book you haven't gotten around to returning, the library tells them where you live, and they form a small group outside your home every day, just staring intently. Hey, they're book people, they're not going to do anything bad. They'll just strongly disapprove.
Eventually the sinner will tire of the ire and hurl the book out the window — and then the book people, being both Minnesotan and book people, will stare at it and insist that someone else take it first.
Which reminds me: If the library doesn't want to run out of popular books to lend, just put one on a plate with a sign that says "last copy," and no one will take it. They might cut it in half, though. Which would be a problem if they went widthwise, not lengthwise. If it's a book about submarine warfare in World War II, one part of the book would be about surface ships, and the other about U-boats. The readers wouldn't get the whole story.
Of course, fines don't guarantee a book's return. When I was going through my father's things, I found a copy of a book he checked out from the North Dakota State University library in the late '40s. I don't know why he never returned it.
The title: "Crime and Punishment."
Over the years, it's possible it sat on the shelf as a rebuke, a reminder to live a moral life: You did not return the book, you racked up fines like a dissolute Russian nobleman gambling at the faro tables, and this is your punishment, the eternal reminder of an act that cannot be absolved.
I have it now, and keep meaning to drive up and return it someday, before all the copies are withdrawn and replaced with "Crime and Supervised Work-Release."
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