Monday, May 27, 2013

The Quest for Quartzite; or How I Learned to Stop Loaning My Books

   I do not loan my books. Ever.  Here is why.

   Before I was a full time writer, before I was a school librarian, I was an "extension" librarian in a fifteen branch library system in rural Mississippi. "Extension librarian" meant I was a bookmobile librarian, minus the bookmobile. I drove the library station wagon. I hit every branch once a month, running children's programs, and muling in new books for the collections.  Although I was not officially a children's librarian, working with kids was my favorite part of the job. My least favorite was the limited book collection. The description "rural Mississippi" says a lot about our book budget.

    Before the Internet, before cable TV, even before satellite dishes, a good many of my patrons had no electronic access to the outside world, unless you counted AM radio. AM radio consisted of farm prices, obituaries, and what was on special at the Piggly Wiggly.

    These kids read. A lot. The libraries were teeny-tiny, wedged into old gas stations, storefronts or the back room of the Farm Bureau or City Hall. My pint-sized patrons had read everything that wasn't nailed down. To supplement  local pickin's, they were allowed to request books from The State Library Commission in Jackson, five books at a time.  I came back from my branch visits with stacks and stacks of loan request cards.  Between visits, the librarians would mail me more requests.  It appeared that not even The Library Commission could satisfy their need for books. Their love of reading gladdened the heart of this newly-minted graduate librarian.  So I did the unthinkable.

    I loaned my own books. They were checked  out through the library system as "a special loan" so I always knew where the book was.  To their credit, those kids living out in Chalybeate and Blue Mountain and Hickory Flat appreciated the effort, and took care of my books better than I did.

    Word circulated that the "Library Lady" could get you whatever you wanted...which made me sound like a literary dope dealer. If you needed a good book report book, she could figure out what you wanted and get it for you.  My kids grew older and moved into high school, and still they were reading! How could I possibly let them down?

     The last year I worked for the public library, my favorite YA book was William Hogan's The Quartzite Trip.  YA literature was a whole 'nother animal in the early '80's. Mostly YA novels were "problem" novels. The main character was anorexic. Or an alcoholic. Or on drugs (we stopped replacing all the library copies of Go Ask Alice that mysteriously "disappeared") Or schizophrenic. (We stopped replacing I Never Promised You a Rose Garden as well.) The Quartzite Trip was so different.  In a sentence, the book is about a high school geology class field trip to the desert in1962.  The tension came from the interpersonal relationships of the class, and their mystical, quasi-hippie (for 1962) teacher. I thought it was great. I thought it was the bomb. I was first in line when the book came out as a paperback.

   Then I got careless with my loaning. I started loaning books to the teens in my town, not going through the library system but as one friend to another. (I was only four or five years older than some of these students.) M--I-S-T-A-K-E.

   One day I went to loan out Quartzite for the 100th time...and it wasn't there. I knew who had it. They'd had it for over a year. In fact, the student had graduated from high school and moved on to the state university. That was OK. His family lived down the street. I'd just go reclaim my book.

    His parents looked at me as if I had two heads. "Bob (not his real name) read a book? Are you sure? Well, you can look around his room..."  I did. I found any number of things that I am sure his parents did not know were lurking in there, but my book was not one of them.

     I hoped he had taken it to college with him (yeah, right!) When he toddled home for Thanksgiving, and I asked, I got a blank look. Finally "Bob" admitted that he "thought" he "lost" it at high school. But hey, he'll pay me the 2.95 (!!!) to replace it.  I took his 2.95, and discovered that the nearest bookstore (50 miles away) no longer had it. I was ticked. I was miffed. I was mad. For the next twenty years I searched in vain for a copy of The Quartzite Trip.   I met a lot of other people, also trying to find the same book, because it had been their favorite in high school.  ("Man, that book was trippin'.")

    Flash forward to the Era of Online Book Buying. I discovered that The Quartzite Trip was out-of-print. The "good news" was that it was available...for an unseemly amount of money...from an out-of-print bookpirate...I mean bookseller. "Bob's" two ninety-five wouldn't cover shipping and insurance, let along the actual price of the book.

    I caved. I paid. I re-read my new/old friend. While it doesn't have the timeless quality of say, Charlotte's Web, it holds up better than any number of books of the same vintage, some of which are required reading in the Atlanta public high schools.  The Quartzite Trip paperback is on the shelf I  reserve for my signed first editions (even though it is only a "good quality used copy" of unknown edition.)

   And that, dear fellow writers and readers, is why, if you ask to borrow one of my books, I will say no, if you ask to borrow a book. Politely, to be sure, but a definite no. I would sooner loan you a lung or a a kidney.  Those come in pairs.

     Don't forget to enter our current giveaway for a copy of Nancy Cavanaugh's debut middle grade novel This Journal Belongs to Ratchet (Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky. See Esther's student success story
for details.

    Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Caroline Starr Rose said...

Wow and double wow.

Carmela Martino said...

Wow is right! Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, MA.