Column: Charles Dickens books were almost good enough to steal

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 26, 2002

It was during my junior year at the University, about this time of the year, as I recall, when I decided to forsake the path of respectability and enter the world of crime. What I had in mind was to steal the collection of Dickens’ works that inhabited the west wing bookcase at the dormitory.

I had become acquainted with the author while I was still in grade school. Because homework was never completed when I had a book to read, the public library was off limits to me during the school term except on Friday nights.

At that time no one was allowed to take out more than one book and it could not be exchanged on the same day it was taken out. I was a fast reader and my Friday book seldom lasted out the weekend. Then I discovered Dickens. His books were thick and heavy, with extremely small print. They lasted.

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The librarian didn’t care much for children. For that matter she didn’t care much for adults. She particularly disliked me because I stupidly tried on one evening to teach a friend how to tap dance in the library. In retrospect I can see her point of view. Even my mother early faced the fact that I was a little on the dim side.

When I begin to take out the novels of Dickens, week after week, though, the librarian’s attitude gradually underwent a remarkable change. She congratulated my mother on having a daughter,

&uot;So young, too,&uot; that appreciated &uot;good&uot; literature.&uot; and recalled that the Cruikshanks had always been the library’s best patrons.

I never disillusioned her. My first brush with the novels was almost too much for me. Their author had a way of skipping from one bunch of characters to another, just as I was beginning to get interested in the first set, that maddened me. The heroines were so sweet and good for the most part that I couldn’t stand them.

I felt sorry when Paul Dombey died, but I was fascinated by all the symbolism of death and the sea that preceded the death. As for David Copperfield’s wife Dora, she was such an air-head that I felt a certain relief when she made her final exit.

I have all of Dickens’ books now. I had only three of them, when I was planning the book caper. I wanted all of them. The reason I planned to take them, though, was because they just sat in that bookcase, collecting dust, unread by everyone but me. The dormitory had a little hall library with contemporary books and current magazines. The Dickens novels weren’t in the library. They were simply being used as space filler in a bookcase. It filled me with indignation from my freshman year.

Ever so often I would take one of them to my room and read it. It was gradually dawning on me that I could take one of them home with me at every holiday or vacation. I’d do it quietly and by time they were missed I’d have graduated.

I make no virtue of never before having stolen anything. I’d never before seen anything that I wanted. Books, though, should be read, not used just to fill a bookcase. Nevertheless I didn’t want to be sneaky about it. So I confided my plan to a friend, who laughed like mad.

&uot;You can’t even tell a social lie without looking guilty,&uot; she said. &uot;If you take any of those books you’ll wind up leaving a note to explain where they’ve gone.&uot;

The next Saturday, a cold and rainy day, she persuaded me to go to The Salvation Army Bookstore in Seven Corners. Sure enough they had all of the books I wanted. Ten cents each. This was during the depression. I couldn’t decide which to take and which to leave. I changed my mind again and again, until from somewhere in the depths of the store an exasperated voice called out to the clerk waiting on me, &uot;For God’s sake give them to her for a nickel each and get her out of here.&uot;

My friend contributed all the change she had; together with what I had there was enough to buy all of them, although we didn’t have enough money left for streetcar tokens.

It was a long, cold, rainy walk back to the dorm. I was so happy I scarcely noticed. My friend, though, remarked somewhat testily that the next time I decided to take to a life of crime, to tell someone else about it.

Love Cruikshank is an Albert Lea resident. Her column appears Thursdays.