Guest Commentary 

The library book is a sacred object--and those who besmirch them deserve pain

When I was a kid, two places were sacred. The first was the church, which fell off my list in about 1996. The other was the public library. The Southern California suburb in which I grew up was a damn boring place, and since my father was a cop, we were always broke. One year, we got lucky. There was an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, and waterfront accommodations were dead cheap. That was a heck of a vacation, yes indeedy. It stands out in my memory, despite the occasional dead bird, as a high point of my childhood.

But even with these luxury vacations and character-building experiences, life was still so static I could hardly remain upright. That is, until the day I discovered the public library. I found the experience both mystifying and confusing. There were no bright signs selling auto parts, no flashy banners proclaiming the lowest price in town, nor was there a crucifix warning me that if I got something wrong, I was going to hell. There was just an open door and a blue-haired librarian in a flouncy dress. She admonished me to dispose of my chewing gum before coming inside.

My life changed after that. I could read about the Middle Ages; I could read about outlaws in the Old West. I could read about goats, bats, kings, presidents or any damn thing I wanted to, and unless I returned the books late, it didn't cost me a cent. Ah, I spent many days curled up in that a small brick building full of adventure stories and science books. In the public library, I learned two important things. First, there was such a thing as intellectual growth--I didn't have to stay ignorant forever if I didn't want to--and second, there was a mode of entertainment other than television.

Christ! I could almost feel my brain rising up from the hopeless mash it was quickly becoming, caused by massive doses of Gilligan's Island and Lost in Space.

I still revere the library and go there often, but lately have discovered a problem. I'm sure others have noticed it, but are still in denial just like I was. My awakening began as I stared at the stained pages of some thriller or crime novel, and tried like hell to convince myself what I was looking at wasn't what I thought it was--that it was chocolate or glue. Dried epoxy does look a lot like the stuff I was hoping I was only imagining, but one day, the truth could no longer be denied.

The gunk on the pages of those library books was neither chocolate nor glue, but boogers and blood. The way I figure it, people are biting their cuticles and picking their noses while they're reading, then wiping their findings on the pages.

I have now come to accept this fact, though it causes me great pain. There are individuals out there who would besmirch the sanctity of library books. They may be standing next to me in the line at the supermarket. They may be the person fixing the automated teller machine. They might even be my neighbors, the guy who works on my car or sells me insurance. But they're out there--oh yes--pretending they're something other than the most uncouth bastards the universe has ever spawned.

I simply cannot understand the minds of such persons, not any more than I can imagine the minds of serial killers and psychopaths. I've tried. Why, I myself, rarely but on occasion, may have unthinkingly dog-eared a page or two of a book I didn't own. But blood and boogers? Never. I'm a decent human being, and there are simply lines that decent human beings don't cross. Wiping snot on a book is one of them.

There ought to be a law. And people who can't keep their hands out of their orifices long enough to get through a book or two ought to be prosecuted to its full extent. A proper punishment, I think, might involve being made to sit, eyes propped open Clockwork Orange-style, through a few thousand hours of Gilligan's Island or Lost in Space re-runs.

It seems extreme, I know. But desperate times call for desperate measures. And in case you haven't noticed, we live in desperate times.

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