When I was a child, my parents had some huge fights about some books my dad stole from the marvelous library of the university he attended on the G.I. Bill. They were 10 bound volumes of Harper’s Bazaar from the 19th century. Growing up, I pored through all of them and found them fascinating. My dad died when I was 20, so I finally broached with my mom the idea of returning the books. She did her purse-mouthed thing and said, “I’ll think about it,” which was her standard way of not dealing with something. I tried talking to her about it several times over the years and realized she was afraid of it reflecting 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 so has physical control of them. She insists that Dad told her that he was awarded them for an essay he wrote. I don’t doubt Dad told her this, but she won’t recognize it was a lie. I have pointed out to her that the volumes are not sequential, which makes no sense for such an award. I told her my memories of the fights our parents had about it, and she refuses to believe me.
I feel this great guilt that those books, which could help someone’s scholarly research, are just sitting on a shelf. I don’t know whether I should do something or just let it go. Name Withheld
The theft of shared property — a category that includes library books — is particularly unfortunate. It can leave a whole community worse off. So I understand your sense of guilt. It must be galling, too, that your sister refuses to face the awkward truth and resists your decent impulse to get these things back where they belong. There’s a lesson here about the human tendency to align what we think to be true with what we’d like to be true. We may balk at replacing an enchanting story about a prizewinning essay with a disenchanting one about library larceny. Our cherished lies will not bend to new evidence; we bind them with hard covers.
Still, you may find some reassurance in the fact that the complete run of this magazine is digitally available in many libraries, almost certainly including the one you mention. (I just looked at the first issue, which appeared in 1867, through the library website of the university where I teach. It bills itself “A repository of fashion, pleasure and instruction” — rather like my classroom when filled with students.) And scholars who need access to the actual pages can locate physical copies in storage somewhere. Another awkward truth: Libraries have often selected bound periodicals like these for deaccessioning, a process that sometimes ends in their destruction. You can’t be confident that the library would even accept their return.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)