Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Gospel According to a Stolen Book


Obododimma Oha

Many scholars and knowledge workers get extremely hurt when they lose their books to thieves, fire, flood, and other disasters. For them, it is indeed a great tragedy, especially if the books they have lost are very rare and cannot be replaced easily. It could be frustrating to realize suddenly that a particular book one needs for an academic article or for some other kind of writing has walked away from one’s personal library without one’s permission! Thus many teachers, apprehensive of losing their books either to their students or their colleagues, try to guard those books jealously, and try to keep lending registers to be able to keep track of them. They have learned from experience that some “friends” borrow books and forget to return them. Some borrow and do not return them, hoping that the lender would forget to ask for their return, or keep promising to return the books and hoping the lender would grow tired of asking for their return. A game of forgetting to remember and remembering to forget to remember!

Lola Shoneyin, a Nigerian poet noted for her exploration of very interesting sides of human behaviour that many of us often take for granted, writes about this experience of losing books to one’s friends in a poem, “Plunderer of Bookshelves,” which appears in one of her volumes of poetry entitled, So All the Time I Was Sitting on an Egg (2001).The irony in the presentation of a “friend” as someone who uses tricks to steal one’s books is unmistakable in Shoneyin’s poem. The trickster-friend named Charles comes begging to be lent a book, seducing the owner with the act of praising:

After begging and pleading,
his eyelids changing channels
like an electrically underfed TV,
he seduces with lore,
tales of what a gem I’ve always been,
then swears by his first-born son
to return my book after a sleep-fast of forty-eight hours.
I succumb.

The power of rhetoric, the ancient art of persuasion, works well for the trickster-borrower. Who wouldn’t lend a “friend” a book after being shown through language use that the “friend” thinks about him or her very highly? To refuse is to suggest the self as being unworthy of the friendship and as being extremely selfish, or what in the idiom of Nigerian English is called having “the hands of glue.”

But the trickster-friend would not return the book after forty-eight hours as promised, not even “six or ten fortnights.” The performance of forgetfulness and contrition follows months later when the trickster-borrower and the unhappy lender meet elsewhere.

Then he spots me approaching
at some accidental social engagement
and puts up a brave embarrassed face.
He proclaims he’s been in a coma or some other continent,
he vows to deliver first thing the next morning.
I believe.

Who wouldn’t forgive someone who is sorry for forgetting, especially when that “someone” is a friend? Human beings can forget sometimes; not so? Human memory, even as a computer, could have “technical” problems and some files may be deleted! Also, to err is human; isn’t it? To forgive has to continue to be divine. Moreover, there are understandable incidents also contributing to the non-fulfillment of the promise of returning the book. And now, the promise is renewed. Why won’t you be happy that your book is coming back after all?

Well, forgetfulness could be recursive. And since time changes everything, the signification of the ownership of the book also changes, to the chagrin of the original owner-lender.

At another friend’s house,
fifteen months later,
this other friend rattles on
about some fantastic text he’s read
and shoves it triumphantly into my face.
I take a look at it and sigh.
My name used to be on the clinically-cropped corner
Didn’t need to ask who lent it to him.
A violet personalised stamp rainbowed the print
On every other page.

Repetitiveness in identification is both a warning and a suppression of other narratives against ownership. Repetitiveness has to be read before the reading of the book, or at least along with the reading of the book. Ownership is part of the meaning constructed by readership, even in subtle visual iconicity or symbolization. Every page of the reader’s mind acknowledges the book that acknowledges the marked ownership. It is credit-giving that debits the relationship between a friend that remembers to forget and another that forgets to remember.

The poet-persona warns:

And if you encounter that friend of mine
Do make sure you take a stand.
Don’t be softened by histories fine
Just tell him straight,
“From MY library, YOU’VE BEEN BANNED!”

But it so happens that owners of books cannot stop lending them out. It seems that it is even when they refuse to lend out those books that the books may decide to walk away with someone else who keeps a glittering eye on them.
The tactics of practised book pilferers are well-known: they come to your office and pick a book, or you bring out the book yourself to explain a point, and they take it to examine it. From examining it, they hold it tighter on their minds, and then try to engage you in a long attention-distracting conversation. When they feel you have relaxed your alertness, they place something else they are holding on top of the book; in other words, pretending to have mixed the book and their own possessions in error. Who would not understand an error as an error?

But beneath this canvas of error is a “prayer” that you the owner do not come back to your watchfulness or remembrance that a book was brought out from the shelf. Very soon afterwards, your book would be on its journey out of your intellectual prison.

A colleague in one of the universities where I have worked once confessed to me that he liked stealing books from other people’s libraries, not because he needed them or wanted to read them, but because he loved seeing them as his own possessions. Stocking the books was what gave him a sense of satisfaction!

These days when values of many seem to have changed in the university environment, and asking students to read a particular book seems to be a punishment, one is no longer so much afraid of losing one’s books to them. One is no longer afraid of leaving students in one’s office while away to the restroom for, indeed, they would not be tempted to touch or steal the books. If they steal the books, of what use are such books to them? Are they going to read them? Re-sell them? Wouldn’t the books become unnecessary luggage? Well, except maybe the particular student in question is like my bibliomaniac colleague mentioned above? But such bibliomaniacs are rare these days! On the contrary, keep your mobile phones of superior quality or an iPod in your office and allow students to come in and go away without being monitored. As universities become more and more interested in entertainment than in reading, books also became less and less unmarked as targets of the pilferer.

Interestingly, books that walk away with friends or foes sometimes manage to find their way back home to the libraries where they rightly belong. Sometimes the “custodian” of your book for years receives a religious feeling and becomes “born-again” and the spirit tells them to return their neighbours’ goods in their possession. And so, one holy afternoon, there is a knock on the door and it is a parcel of words you have missed so much.

Stolen books know that “No condition is permanent,” for those that stole them may close their eyes and never be able to open them again someday. And so, the books in captivity rejoice, hoping that someone filled with the spirit of justice would liberate them and send them to whence they came. It has been happening.

Work Cited

Shoneyin, Lola (2001)So All the Time I Was Sitting on an Egg (2nd edition), Ibadan: Ovalonion House.