When I was a kid my parents had some heated arguments over some books my father stole from the wonderful university library he was attending on the GI bill. There were 10 bound volumes from Harper’s Bazaar from the 19th century. Growing up I scoured them all and found them fascinating. My father died when I was 20, so I ended up talking to my mother about the idea of returning the books. She did her pocket mouth thing and said, “I’ll think about it,” which was her usual way of not dealing with something. I have tried talking to her about it several times over the years and found that she was afraid it would affect her badly for failing to persuade him not to keep her.
My mother died four years ago and I told my sister I wanted to return the volumes. She lives in Mom’s house and has physical control over her. She insists that Dad told her he received it for an essay he wrote. I don’t doubt Dad told her that, but she won’t realize it was a lie. I pointed out to her that the volumes are not consecutive, which makes no sense for such an award. I told her my memories of our parents’ arguments and she refuses to believe me.
I feel this great guilt that these books that might help someone with scientific research are just on a shelf. I don’t know whether to do something or just leave it. Name withheld
The theft of Community property – a category that includes library books – is particularly unfortunate. An entire community can be worse off. So I understand your guilt It must also be annoying that your sister refuses to face the awkward truth and defies your decent impulse to get these things back where they belong. There is a lesson here on the human tendency to reconcile what we believe to be true with what we would like to be true. We can shy away from replacing an enchanting story about an award-winning essay with a sobering one about library theft. Our cherished lies will not yield to new evidence; We bind them with hard covers.
Still, you can rest easy in the fact that the entire circulation of this magazine is available digitally in many libraries, including the ones you mentioned almost certainly. (I just looked at the first edition, published in 1867, through the library website of the university I teach at. It describes itself as “A Collection of Fashion, Pleasure, and Education” – much like my classroom when it comes to Students.) And scholars who need access to the actual pages can find physical copies somewhere in memory. Another uncomfortable truth: libraries have often selected hardback journals like this one for outsourcing, a process that sometimes ends with their destruction. You can’t be sure that the library will even accept your return.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at NYU. His books include Cosmopolitanism, The Honor Code, and The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. To submit a request: send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or email The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. (Provide a phone number for the day.)