And in dispelling my fantasies of permanence, the library does more than save me the cost of a paperback — it provides me with a template for navigating the great sea of longing and disappointment that is life. Imagine a library of expensive clothes, in which you could see the shirt you’re considering spending $98 on as it will look once it has got an ineradicable oil stain on its chest. Or a library of potential cities in which you might live, where each one is forced to display not just its tree-lined block on an April Saturday, but also its roasting Publix parking lot, its ginkgo-mashed sidewalk squares, its February bus stops. The library, in addition to its many civic duties, can function as a great engine of personal clarity, of facing facts, of recognizing that life is not, in the main, a pristine hardcover with deckle edges; it is a threadbare thing from a few decades ago whose binding is barely hanging on and in which someone unstable once went to town with a lime green highlighter.
Library-induced realism is a great thing, one that can do much to increase your happiness. Because the world in which you are perpetually under the impression that the next book purchase, the next apartment, the next significant other will be the one that finally delivers the goods is not a life of happiness. It is a life of perpetual dissatisfaction, a life of thin and sugary highs followed by long and unenlightening lows. The library is, with its careworn and temporary offerings, as lovely and as poignant a reminder of our actual human condition as the tides or a forest in fall. To quote Penelope Fitzgerald (whose books are well worth owning): “Our lives are only lent to us.”
And I should probably mention here: I did end up loving “The Debt to Pleasure.” I loved it so much that I have now ordered a copy of my own, and I await it with the contented serenity of a shepherd gathering in his flock at sundown. The library can (in fact it frequently does) deliver satisfaction, but it is an autumnal satisfaction, one that looks beyond the mirage of permanent ownership. I know that I love this novel and that it will bring me great pleasure, and I also know that my daughter will someday place it on the curb beside a chess set and a broken kettle (just needs a new plug!).
When, one recent day, the library copy of “The Debt to Pleasure” was due, I walked it over to the weird side entrance that is now acting as the library’s drop-off window, and I tossed the book into the blue plastic wheelie Returns bin. This book that had, a few nights earlier in bed, made me laugh so hard that I couldn’t intelligibly explain to my wife what was so funny was now heaped with hundreds of others — diet books, vampire books, picture books — each one fresh from its role in one person’s life and headed, as soon as it could be reshelved, for another. I walked off without looking back. The book had never belonged to me in the first place.