Searching on line not long ago, I found a book on "Modern European History Since 1600" written by Carl Becker. I have been looking for a book by Carl Becker for quite a while, so I bought it on eBay.
The book arrived, worn and tattered and with old, yellowing scotch tape holding the table of contents and most of the first fifteen pages in place. I noticed that the book is stamped "Kentridge H.S. Library". The library card is still in the back of the book, with the Dewey decimal number imprinted on it. (940.2 B.) The last time-stamped entry on the card is March 19, 1978. I cannot make out the name of the student who borrowed it back then. This book was really overdue!
In the Middle Ages books and manuscripts were scarce and valuable, and were protected with curses. One curse says that "For him that stealeth, or borroweth and retuneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted." If that is not bad enough, it gets worse. The curse continues: "Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in disolution. Let bookworms gnaw at his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever."
This would not do at all. If the book I was holding was not returned to the library, its rightful owner, I for one was not about to have something gnawing at my entrails because of it.
I called Kentridge High School in Kent, Washington and asked for the library, nervoulsy looking over my shoulder for any flames from Hell. I spoke to Esther, who works there and was very friendly. I confessed that I was holding a book overdue for over thirty-five years. She said the book was taken out of circulation along with many others. They were packed up and sent to the school district office where they were auctioned. Typically they go to third world countries, she said. Sometimes, Esther told me, people buy them in bulk and then resell them. That would explain my purchase on eBay.
She assured me that I do not owe any late fees. I didn't even have to cry for mercy.