Too late to return the books?

  • 17 January 2007
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A  couple of weeks ago, in Hancock, Michigan, a 57-year-old man was searching through the attic of his family home when he opened a box and a dusty copy of a book called Prince of Egypt fell out. He flicked to the back cover and discovered that it was a library book, 47 years overdue. 

Over the years, the book had been misplaced and boxed and re-boxed and misplaced again.  

The man, Robert Nuranen, went down to his local library and laid it down on the counter in front of the startled librarian. She totalled the fees and it came out to $171.32. He left the library with a receipt from a transaction that was due on 2 June, 1960, when he was 10 years old.   

There are times when we come upon parts of our old lives that bring us around to where we once were. The novelist John Berger once said: “If I had known as a child what the life of an adult would have been, I never would have believed it, I never could have believed it would be so unfinished.” Unfinished it always is, until it can't be any longer. Many of us would give as much as $171.32 – if not a whole lot more – to be able to return to the past in such a grand, nostalgic manner.  

I hardly know what book it was that I was reading 47 days ago, let alone 47 months. Yet the curious thing about how time eludes us is how forcefully other, more distant times actually return to us. We may not remember yesterday, but the texture of decades ago can sometimes hit us with the force of an axe.

It struck me recently – when asked about my favourite books of all time – that I was seven years old when I first read Mary Lavin's The Second Best Children in the World. It was a book that my father, a journalist with the Evening Press, brought home to me and which he and my mother read at my bedside, but I can still remember it as if the bread is only now coming out of the oven.     

I knew nothing about Mary Lavin at that stage, in 1972, but the story that she conjured up (about Ben who's 10, and Kate who's eight, and the other, Matt, who is “so small that I can hardly see him at all”) was powerful to me. The kids decide that – in order to give their parents a rest – they will go on a long trip around the world. As they don't want to wear out the soles of their shoes, they walk always on their heels, but soon their shoes grow too small for them.  They return home, having grown up, but Lavin doesn't treat it as a moment of terror or loss.  Instead, the parents come running from the house with open arms and call them the “best children in the world”. The kids disagree. The best children never would have left in the first place.   And so they're second best – and gladly so.  

When I re-read it recently, I was taken aback by how much I remembered of the book. It heartened me to return.  

I'm tempted to make a political analogy in a time when the State of the Union address is due up from George W Bush. This time a month ago. This time two years ago. This time six years ago. But the problem with politics is that we can't go back in the same way. Nobody can reclaim those many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, or the over 3,000 Americans dead (more than died in the World Trade Center), or the peculiar innocence the country lost under this current regime of totally failed leadership: the lies, the misdirection, the corruption.  That particular clock does not get rewound. Politics is not stewarded by the same sense of narrative. What's done is done and what's lost is lost. There is no going back. There is no moral re-stepping to better times, no nostalgic look back at what we can, or even choose, to remember.   

In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday 23 January, there is no doubt that Bush will try to cover things up, but there will be no simple library fine for him this time around. He will open up the back of the book and there will be an altogether different statement awaiting him. The moral will not come from any children's story – no Prince of Egypt, no Second Best Children – and there will be nobody, in the long look backwards, who will want to greet him at the gate. Americans are well aware that the union is truly sick. It has been for a long time. And it will be for quite a while still to come – way beyond the two years Bush still has left.  

Still, this State of the Union is his time of reckoning. He will – no doubt – try to weasel out of what has happened to this once-great nation, but nobody will buy that book, nobody will keep it in the attic. We are all well aware of how the narrative has been flipped. Nobody will call this the second-worst presidency of them all.