When I was a kid, my parents argued fiercely over books my father stole from the beautiful university library he attended on the GI Bill. They were 10 bound volumes of Harper’s Bazaar from the 19th century. Growing up, I flipped through them all and found them fascinating. My father died when I was 20, so I finally brought up the idea of returning the books with my mother. She reached into her purse and said, “I’ll think about it,” which was her standard way of not coping. I tried to talk to her about them several times over the years and realized she was afraid it would reflect badly on her because she hadn’t persuaded him not to keep them.
My mother died four years ago and I told my sister I wanted to return the volumes. She lives in Mom’s house and thus has physical control over them. She insists that Dad told her he got them for an essay he wrote. I have no doubt that Dad told her this, but she won’t see it was a lie. I pointed out to her that the parts are not consecutive, which at such a price makes no sense. I told her my memories of our parents’ fights about it, and she refuses to believe me.
I feel enormously guilty that those books, which could help one’s scientific research, just sit on a shelf. I don’t know if I should do anything or just let it go. Name withheld
The theft of shared ownership – a category that includes library books – is particularly unfortunate. It could make an entire community worse off. So I understand your guilt. It must also be painful that your sister refuses to face the inconvenient truth and resists your proper impulse to get these things back where they belong. There is a lesson here about the human tendency to align what we think is true with what we would like to be true. We may be hesitant to replace an enchanting tale of an award-winning essay with a disappointing tale of library theft. Our cherished lies will not bend to new evidence; we bind them hardback.
Nevertheless, you can find some reassurance in the fact that the complete circulation of this journal is available digitally in many libraries, almost certainly also in the libraries you mentioned. (I just looked at the first issue, which came out in 1867 through the library website of the university where I teach. It calls itself “A Repository of Fashion, Fun, and Instruction”—kind of like my classroom when full of students.) And scientists who need access to the actual pages can find physical copies in storage somewhere. Another inconvenient truth: libraries have often selected such bound journals for disposal, a process that sometimes ends in their destruction. You can’t be sure that the library would even accept their 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 question: Email [email protected]; or email The Ethicist, NewsMadura Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)