It’s December 1975, on a Greyhound bus somewhere between my home in Salt Lake City and Edmonton, Alberta. Jim came from San José, California, and now we’re on our way to our parents’ house for Christmas. I’m 15, and he’s just turned 18. We’ve both been sent to live with legal guardians.
“I’ve got an early Christmas present for you, brother.” Jim hands me a large book, about 11” x 8” x 1.5” thick, THE WORLD OF M.C. ESCHER. On the top edge of the text block there’s an ink stamp, on the spine there’s a sticker marked ‘f769 E74z’, and when I open it, on the front free endpaper is pasted a small manilla pocket envelope marked:
FOR OVERTIME A CHARGE OF 5 CENTS A DAY
Careful usage of books is expected and any soiling,
damage, or loss is to be paid for by the borrower.
The index card isn’t in the envelope.
“Thank you, brother!” I don’t care that he stole it from the library, it’s a wonderful gift! He knows that I love M.C. Escher, and I have several of his posters on my walls. I could never afford to buy a book like this, it’s a complete collection of his works with the history included. We’re used to lifting things, it’s become a habit for both of us, just like doing drugs and skipping school. In fact, on this bus trip I’ve got a hundred lot of blue microdot acid and we just happen to be tripping.
It’s now September, 2025, I’m 65 years old and this book is still with me. It has traveled the world, literally. I’ve rid myself of most of my material possessions several times in my life, and it has always stayed with me. The book is 50 years overdue, and now I’m determined to return it. Why? You may well ask, after all this time, what good is there to it? Who cares? The answer to that question is simple; My mindset has changed many times in these last 50 years, and now I understand that this book is not mine, period. Now, I feel that I must “Do it by the book.” and return it to its rightful owners.
My mind starts its deliberation:
“I’ve lost it.”
“No, I have all of my wits.” I assure myself. “I’m ready to pay the overdue charges as well; let’s see, 18250 days at 5 cents a day comes to $912.”
“And why not just send them a reimbursement for the cost of the book? What’s more, I could keep the book that way. It would be a lot cheaper! It does say ‘loss to be paid for by the borrower’.”
“But that’s not correct, it’s not lost, it’s still in my possession, and for the last 50 years, other people could have benefitted from learning about this great artist free of charge, and I’ve robbed them of this opportunity.”
“But paying the fine won’t change that. Besides, it was my brother who stole the book, not me!”
“Yes, but I lived in San José in ’77 and ’78, and I could very well have returned it during those 2 years, but I didn’t. So, I alone am responsible. And rules are rules. No. I have to return it. Furthermore, this will give me a chance to visit San José with my wife and son, as they haven’t been to the USA yet.”
I suddenly remember a discussion I had with Jim about 30 years ago. He had become a sheriff’s deputy, and he told me “The law is the law. Period.” What a change in mentality we've both had since our youth! I didn’t and still don’t completely agree, as I tend to be more of the same mind with MLK Junior’s comment in his famous letter from Birmingham Jail: "One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." The law is not always right.
However, in this particular case, one could argue that my overdue library book is of little to no consequence whatsoever on people’s lives. What difference does it make? The difference, in my mind now, is that I must do what is right, regardless of the weight of the action. It is for my own peace of mind that I undertake this endeavor to right a wrong.
Feigning simply a longing to visit the different places of my youth in the USA, I suggest to my wife that we take a long summer trip to the states. I say nothing of the reason I want to go to San José. Anyway, there is some truth in my wanting to take a trip down memory lane.
So, it’s agreed, we’re taking a month-long trip. I manage to contact old friends to stay with all along our itinerary.
We start with Chicago, our landing point. Even though those were the worst years of my life, there are some great things to do and see, especially for my son. He’s 9 years old, and his excitement brings back memories of my own fascination with the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum when I was his age. From there we rent a car and drive first to Minneapolis, where I spent the last 5 years in the USA before leaving for France back in ’83. Everything has changed since the riots of 2020. The Mall of America is still there (it was built long after I left but I’d returned to the Twin Cities several times in the past) and we visit the Hard Rock Café. I tell my son how I had a life changing encounter with Prince in ’83. My wife already knew the story. After Minneapolis we head west to the Standing Rock Lakota Reservation in North Dakota, and then drive all the way to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana where I was born and lived until I was 9. We visit Glacier National Park, and Camp out and go fishing on Flathead Lake. My son has been asking to camp out and roast marshmallows for years like he saw on TV. Next we head to Seattle, where I also spent 2 years of my life, and check out the new Central Public Library, taking time to choose a book and read in the “living room”. When we’ve visited all the sights in Seattle, we drive down the coast to San Francisco, and then have a wonderful tour of the bay area. Of all the places I lived in the USA in my youth, this is the one place I can imagine living again.
Finally, at long last, we reach my ultimate destination. I march into the San Jose Public Library, and exulting in my moment of triumph, I present the book to the librarian at the counter. Her look is one of arrant bewilderment.
“My brother checked it out in 1975, I believe, and I’m here to return it and pay the overdue fee. It should be around $900.”
“Excuse me one moment sir, I’ll have to check with the Head Librarian about this.”
“That’s alright.” I smile. “It’s been 50 years, a few minutes more won’t make any difference, will it?”
She takes the book and comes back about 20 minutes later. I’m already absorbed in a book.
“Yes ma’am, may I pay the fine now?”
“You don’t have anything to pay sir. The book is yours.” She opens it and points to a name, address, and telephone number written in red marker with an official stamp of the library next to it on the pasted down endpaper of the inside front cover. “This person bought the book at a sale we held. We do this from time to time with old books. We had certainly received new copies.”
Now it’s me that is thunderstruck. I could have called and inquired before crossing the Atlantic and then driving over three thousand miles. My brother Jim didn’t get it from the library, and I hadn’t even bothered to ask him. I just kind of always assumed that he’d just taken it, as I would have and could have done 50 years ago.
I guess that closes the book on this story. At least it gave me a reason to go back to San José, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll stay. Morocco now seems so far away.