Confessions of an Overdue Library Book Returner in Westchester

Who hasn't forgotten to return a library book at some point? Writer Phil Reisman accounts for a long-overdue book in Rye.

There are worse crimes against humanity than forgetting to return a library book by its due date.

But 24 years overdue is a bit extreme, don’t you think?

I think so — and yes, I am the guilty party.

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Before the dawn of the third millennium, I borrowed E.V. Ehrlich’s Grant Speaks, a fanciful novel based on the life and times of Ulysses S. Grant. I quickly read it (I vaguely recall liking it) but completely forgot to return it from whence it came, the Rye Public Library. Imagine my shock and chagrin when I recently rediscovered the book, laden with dust and haphazardly jammed between tomes in a bookcase at my home. The due date was June 24, 2000.

Being a quarter of a century overdue is inexcusable, I readily admit, but I’ve got nothing on Col. Robert Walpole, an Englishman who in 1667, borrowed a book in German about the Archbishop of Bremen; it was returned 288 years later. Walpole’s delinquency record is as safe as Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak.

When long-forgotten books are returned they become instant human-interest stories — a peek into the past, like excavated time capsules. They are like Rip Van Winkle awakening from a long deep slumber or bottled messages cast adrift and found on distant shores.

Hence, the media hubbub inspired by the report of a book by Joseph Conrad that was brought back to the Larchmont Public Library last October, 90 years after it was due. The story was first reported in the local Patch and spread hither and thither all the way to the Washington Post. The librarians were so excited, they retired the book from circulation and put it on display.

library
Adobe Stock / Pixelrobot

“We were very excited,” one of the librarians told WAPO. “It’s an unusual thing to happen.”

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It is rare, but maybe not that rare. In terms of epic tardiness, the Larchmont book saga was eclipsed earlier in 2023 by two library books that were returned more than 100 years after they were due — one in Napa Valley, CA, and the other in New Bedford, MA.

What about fines? Policies vary from library to library, but most libraries are quite forgiving and charge nothing more than a few bucks, if anything. While most reprobates get off easy, some certainly do not.

For instance, take Emily Canellos-Simms of Kewanee, IL, who in 2002 set the record for the highest library fine ($345) for a book of children’s poems that was 47 years overdue. The fact that she didn’t borrow the book in the first place and found it while cleaning out her mother’s house did not sway the authorities.

That was nothing compared to the shame and ridicule suffered by Christopher Anspach, a Newton, IA, pizza deliveryman who, in 2011, made the huge mistake of ignoring calls from his local library to return 11 books and six CDs that were several months overdue. Arrested on a warrant, Anspach was charged with third-degree theft, a misdemeanor, and — get this — jailed for 10 days! Suffice to say, they threw the “book” at him, pun intended. Somewhere online, you can find his police mugshot. Word to the wise: Texas, Vermont, and Maine are similarly hard-nosed when it comes to delinquent borrowers.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind: A few public libraries will chase you down with an Indiana-based collection agency called, Unique National Collections, whose only clients are book lenders. I know this because they contacted me in 2004, when I failed to return The American Scene, by H.L. Mencken that was six months overdue at the New Rochelle Public Library. They charged me $40, which I somehow managed to avoid paying.

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By now you can tell I rely heavily on the kindness of librarians — and since this happens to be National Library Lovers’ Month, I would be remiss if I didn’t blow a heartfelt kiss to the librarians of Rye and to librarians everywhere.

Doing some back-of-the-envelope math, I figure I owe somewhere north of $1,900 for the super-late return of Grant Speaks. By the way, that would roughly cover the price of 100 new copies of the book for sale on Amazon. Fortunately, Rye library has a $10 fine limit.

Reisman
Reisman photo by Stefan Radtke

When long-forgotten books are returned they become instant human-interest stories

Considering the 24-year offense, 10 bucks was a bargain. But when I tried to pay up, the librarian kindly refused the money and sent me on my way.

Before I left, I thought about trying to renew the book, you know, as a sort of joke. But then I came to my senses.

That would really be pressing my luck.

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com.

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