Jules Verne

Sunday was a strange day. My local library is closing for 10 weeks — they’re moving to a new location, and until December they’ll be busy moving the physical books from one location to another. Obviously they wouldn’t be having this problem if all of their texts were ebooks. But what’s even stranger is that dozens of library patrons lined up to exploit a loophole!

I’d asked the obvious question: What happens if we check out a book, and it’s due after October 4th? And they’d replied that we could keep the book — they’d have no place to put it — so we wouldn’t have to return it until more than two months later! Sunday I rushed to the library for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have any book for 10 weeks. And suddenly I noticed that the parking lot was jam-packed — not a single space left — as though all the readers in town had the exact same idea.

It was ominous. The library would be open for just one half hour more. And within minutes the check-out line was huge — backed up halfway across the width of the building, and then turning 90 degrees, where it continued through an entire low shelf in the children’s section. The librarians looked harried, and I estimated there were 50 eager readers, clutching massive armfuls of precious library books. And I got another shock when I finally made my way to the library’s DVD section.

The DVD racks were empty! There were just bare wire shelves where most of the DVDs used to be. I saw a handful of very-unwanted remainders left behind. Later I joked to my girlfriend that it was “library apocalypse” day.

But I was still very I excited, because I could finally have any book I wanted, and I could keep it for 10 weeks! I began looking at the books differently, asking myself which titles I’d score now? My first thought was to check out hard copies of books that I’m reading slowly on the Kindle. Partly it’s an experiment — I want to see what it’s like to switch back to reading a book. But it’s also because my girlfriend and I keep wanting to use the Kindle at the same time!

Unfortunately, in the library, I couldn’t find a printed version of every book that I wanted to read — unlike the Kindle store. But since I’ve been reading a lot of biographies of the American frontier, I checked out “supplementary material.” (What happened to Buffalo Bill after he finished writing his autobiography — and which of his western exploits did historians think he was exaggerating?) I also checked out The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin — which is currently one of the top-selling free ebooks in Amazon’s Kindle store. And it was nice to know I’d also have 10 weeks to enjoy the coffee-table sized book about the life of Ben Franklin, which had some great glossy pictures which, honestly, would look much better in a full-color printed book.

I had to use the card catalog to find a book about Billy the Kid — the other historical figure I’m reading about. And then I swerved over to the Video section to see if I could still find anything left. There were “slim pickings,” but I eventually found a work-out tape. (Maybe with 10 weeks, I’ll finally get out to actually exercising with it at least once). Usually library videos are due in one week, so this felt like a rare treat. And there were a few DVDs left behind that I was actually interested in.

I was like a kid in a candy store, grabbing videos because — hey, why not? And then the library announced over the loudspeakers that they were closing until December 7, and no books would be checked out after 5 p.m. (“Thank you and goodnight.”) In reality, they had to keep the check-out desk open far beyond 5:00 to handle the throng of eager readers trying desperately to stock up on books. For the interim, they assured us, we could also check out books from the library at the local elementary school.

I came home with an enormous stack of books — and a smile on my face. I told myself I was like a Viking pillaging the library, and I was very excited about my treasures. I spent a few minutes showing my girlfriend my new stack of books — which, with all this extra time, I may finally finish reading!

And that night, I began reading them…while my girlfriend continued reading on the Kindle!

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Mark Twain writes a play with Bret Harte
Mark Twain once co-authored a play with another forgotten writer named Bret Harte. Their legendary meeting was even depicted in an advertisement for Old Crow whiskey (above). Here’s how Twain himself described it.

“Well, Bret came down to Hartford and we talked it over, and then Bret wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect…”


In fact, “They both worked on the play, and worked hard,” according to Twain’s literary executor. One night Harte apparently even stayed up until dawn at Twain’s house to write a different short story for another publisher. (“He asked that an open fire might be made in his room and a bottle of whiskey sent up, in case he needed something to keep him awake… At breakfast-time he appeared, fresh, rosy, and elate, with the announcement that his story was complete.”) I was delighted to discover that 134 years later, that story was still available on the Kindle, “a tale which Mark Twain always regarded as one of Harte’s very best.”

Bret Harte’s short story (as a Kindle ebook)
Biography of Mark Twain by his executor (Kindle ebook)

Harte’s career had already touched another famous writer — Charles Dickens. Before his death, 58-year-old Dickens had sent a letter inviting Bret Harte for a visit in England. But ironically, that letter didn’t arrive until after young Harte had already written a eulogy marking Dickens’ death. (It was a poem called “Dickens in Camp,” suggesting that to the English oaks by Dickens’ grave, they should also add a spray of western pine for his fans in the lost frontier mining towns of California.)

But two of Harte’s famous short stories had already captured Dickens’ attention — “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” John Forster, who was Dickens’ biographer, remembers that “he had found such subtle strokes of character as he had not anywhere else in later years discovered… I have rarely known him more honestly moved.” In fact, Dickens even felt that Harte’s style was similar to his own, “the manner resembling himself but the matter fresh to a degree that had surprised him.”


“Dickens in Camp” as a free Kindle ebook
The Outcasts of Poker Flat as a Kindle ebook
The Luck of Roaring Camp and other stories
Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (Kindle ebook)


So last year I’d finally pulled down a dusty volume of Bret Harte stories from my local public library. I’d had an emotional reaction to “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” — and an equally intense response to “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” But Harte’s career had peaked early, and it seems like he spent his remaining decades just trying to recapture his early success. (“His last letters are full of his worries over money,” notes The Anthology of American Literature, along with “self-pitying complaints about his health, and a grieving awareness of a wasted talent.”) Even in the 20th century, his earliest stories still remained popular as a source of frontier fiction — several were later adapted into western movies. But Harte never really achieved a hallowed place at the top of the literary canon.

Yet “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was the first ebook I’d ordered on my Kindle. I’d checked for print editions but hadn’t found a single one at either Borders, Barnes and Noble, or a local chain called Bookstores, Inc. Days later, I’d decided to try my public library, where I discovered a whole shelf of the overlooked novelist (including an obscure later novel called The Story of a Mine). And that’s when I noticed the date that the library had stamped on its inside cover.

“SEP 21 1905.”

Bret Harte library book - checked out in 1905Close-up of library check-out date for Bret Harte book

I felt like I was holding history in my hand. The book was published just three years after Harte’s death in 1902, and there was an old-fashioned card, in a plastic pocket glued to the inside cover, which showed some of the past check-out dates, including FEB 12 1923 and APR 8 1923.

Bret Harte library book - old check-out datesCheck-out dates for old library book

More than a century later, my local librarians had tagged this ancient book with an RFID chip so you could check it out automatically just by running it across a scanner. A computerized printer spit out a receipt, making sure that the book wouldn’t remotely trigger their electronic security alarm when it was carried past the library’s anti-theft security gates.

I hope that somewhere, that makes Bret Harte happy.