Mr. Victor Carlson was reading a paperback copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment at his local library, engrossed in the tale, when he flipped to page seventy-two and discovered what he presumed to be, a previous reader’s bookmark. It was a small receipt, pale with age, a snapshot in time when someone paid $3.28 for a breakfast at Denny’s on March 23, 1996. But the distinguished 52 year-old was less interested in the receipt itself than he was with its placement within the book. He couldn’t help but wonder if this was the actual spot—this page seventy-two–where the previous reader stopped reading this classic piece of literature. Was it possible that no one else had read this particular copy in six years? Could it be that in all that time no other reader had come along and moved it out of the way?
As a former teacher of literature, he was bothered at the implication. He felt the receipt’s placement seemed emblematic of a world focused on instant gratification. Still, he reminded himself not to jump to conclusions. After all, any old receipt found in a junk drawer might be used as a bookmark. Why conclude it was last read only then?
The library was practically his second home and, as such, he had no reservations about asking a librarian, particularly Miss Benson, whom he had a degree of affection for, about the history of this particular text.
She was smiling as he approached the counter. Carlson found Miss Benson, who he surmised to be in her late 40’s, to be an attractive woman, possessing a sort of studious Betty White look.
“Hello, Mr. Carlson,” she said, looking at the book he had placed on the counter. “You’re not done with Dostoevsky already, are you? Why, you’ve just checked it out yesterday?”
“No, I wish I read that fast. Actually, I was just wondering if you could tell me the last time this fine book was checked out.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Is this a Patriot Act issue, Mr. Carlson? I had no idea you worked in the intelligence community.” She said it half-jokingly, yet he sensed she might have actually wondered if this explained his continual presence at Wilmington Library.
“Nothing like that, Miss Benson,” he said. “I was just interested in the how frequently Dostoevsky is checked out.”
She nodded at his noble intentions. “Certainly. Let’s have a look.”
She scanned in the barcode, reading the results, her eyes fixed to the screen. “Looks as though it has not been checked out frequently at all. In fact, the last time was March 25, 1996.”
Carlson was dumbfounded.
“Why, that’s absurd,” he said, speaking to himself more than her. “You mean to tell me no one checked out this book in six years?”
She shrugged. “That’s correct. According to the screen here—“
“But it’s a classic!” he said nearly shouting, while scratching his partially bald scalp. “I would expect high schools and colleges to have required it in their literature classes.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you.”
By her blank look, he realized that he was almost badgering her; he hadn’t meant to. He was demanding answers from someone who could not give them.
“I’m sorry, Miss Benson. I seem to have had a temporary burst of insanity.”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said, a smile returning to her face. “You’re just passionate about good literature. There’s no crime in that!”
On the drive home he began to obsess about the bookmark, nearly colliding into a Honda Accord in the process. It was during this drive that an idea came to him: what if there was a gift left in the pages of a classic book?—a “thank you” to those virtuous souls wishing to improve themselves through the reading of great literature.
His idea fermented into a plan of putting a $100 bill within the pages of Crime and Punishment. For symbolic reasons he decided on page seventy-four; it would mean the reader at least read more than the Denny’s customer. He imagined the pleasant surprise for the reader. And why not do it? He was wealthy and had no family or close friends to leave his money to. Why not do something constructive with it and encourage literacy?
He relished the intrigue of it all: no one would know who put the bill in the book, and conversely, he would not know who found it. Of course, there was that possibility that Miss Benson or another librarian might look up the last person to check out the book, but he suspected they would keep his little secret.
So a week later, after he had finished Crime and Punishment, Carlson slid a new hundred dollar bill between pages seventy-four and seventy-five, drove to the library, and gently slid the book into the drop box.
Time passed. Weeks turned into months. Every so often Carlson would go to the library and sneak a peek to see if the bill was still there. Sure enough, there was poor old Ben Franklin, alone and unloved, staring endlessly at Raskolnikov’s ponderings of why criminals so often fail in their crimes.
The months turned into a year. Mr. Carlson grew impatient. Therefore, he decided it would be more effective to put a few more bills in some of the other classics. So on anther trip to Wilmington Library, he went to the Classics area, found Voltare’s Candide and Bronte’s Jane Eyre, went off to a remote area of the library and slid a bill into each, just as he had done with Crime and Punishment.
He left the library that day feeling invigorated. But if he thought that these bills would be hidden away for as long, he was mistaken. It was only a week later that he discovered, while reading his local paper, that a single mother, Mrs. Lisa Makowski of Southridge, had discovered a hundred dollar bill while reading Jane Eyre. “I was so happy,” she told the reporter. “Money has been tight, so I cancelled my cable TV, and started reading books from the library instead. I was reading Bronte when I turned the page and saw a hundred dollar bill staring at me. I was elated.”
Mr. Carlson smiled and put down the paper. His actions had finally paid off. He was confident that with this story perhaps others would be inspired to read some of the great books. It also motivated him to put a few bills in a couple of other classics. On another day, he inserted Franklins into Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities. And because he was moved by the woman’s story, he put one in the pages of a book about single motherhood.
Mr. Carlson left the library proud of his deeds. In fact, he so enjoyed the success of his discrete philanthropy that he went to the bank, withdrew more money, then visited three other local area libraries: Westgate, Cherry Hill Public, and Cambridge Public, leaving little treasures in each.
It was the next night, while he was watching the local news, that he saw a report that made him sit up:
“We now go live to Rex Crane who is at Westgate Library in Brice Park. Rex?”
“Thanks, Steve. The first hundred dollar bill was found in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations after a librarian became suspicious when she noticed a patron placing something in various books and then returning them to the shelf. Later, she returned to the shelf where the patron had been and found the bill. On further examination she found another hundred dollar bill, this one in Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility. But what the generous patron may not have realized is that Westgate Library has an extensive surveillance system, and as a result, we have clear images of the philanthropist in action.
“If we can roll that tape—“
Carlson stared in disbelief. There he was, in an aisle of books, looking to his left and right to make sure no one was watching—when, in fact, the world was watching. He cursed himself; how could he be so stupid not to realize there might be a security camera? He sat down. There was no reason to panic. After all, it was a grainy, black and white image—who would possibly recognize him?
The next afternoon, while on his way to the mailbox, he saw his neighbor, Mrs. Pulski, moving towards him on the sidewalk, dragging along her shopping cart. The snoopy sixty year-old constantly wore a blue scarf that looked like it came from another era.
Carlson flipped through his mail and quickened his pace back to his house, but she cut him off.
“Did you see what happened at Westgate Library yesterday?” she asked.
“No, Mrs. Pulski,” he said, continuing to flip though his mail. “I haven’t really watched the news—“
“Somebody has been putting $100 bills in the books. Can you imagine that?”
“You don’t say. Listen, I would love to stay and talk but–“
“They showed the guy too, you know. He looks like—well, he looks a bit like you, Mr. Carlson.”
He looked up at her. Does she know?
“You don’t say. Remarkable coincidence. Now if you will excuse me—.”
“Not too many people wear that kind of sport coat anymore, do they?” she said, brushing the back of her hand on the black suede.
Carlson looked at his jacket a moment, realizing it was the same one he was wearing in the video. “No, I suppose they–.”
“You go to the library quite a bit, don’t you, Mr. Carlson?”
Noticing her gaze had turned suspicious, he looked back at his mail. “Yes, I suppose I do. Why do you ask, Mrs. Pulski?”
She shrugged. “I’m just saying, if you happen to see the guy when you’re there, maybe you could keep an eye open and snatch up a bill for me. I have trouble making ends meet since Alfred passed away, you know.”
Carlson smiled, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I will keep that in mind, Mrs. Pulski. Now if you will excuse me. As you can see, I have bills to pay.”
On Friday morning he was having breakfast in his kitchen, when he heard commotion outside. He went to the living room window and peered out. Parked on the street, he saw three news vans, their satellite dishes on poles extending to the sky. He moved away from the window. So Mrs. Pulski snitched. But he found he wasn’t entirely upset; he liked his anonymity, but half-wondered if this was what he subconsciously wanted all along. After all, there was a certain attraction in being a local celebrity—and generous one, at that.
He went out the front door and three reporters with their camera crew’s were already coming up the steps. He recognized Jim Gathers from 7-Witness News, Katie Sawyers from NewsTime-5, as well as Lester Brock from News Nine at 9.
Katie Sawyers was the first to approach him, microphone outstretched, as if forcing an ice cream cone upon him.
“Mr. Carlson—are you the person that’s been leaving hundred dollar bills in libraries around town?”
He didn’t have time to answer before the next question was fired off.
“Why did you do it?” asked Lester Brock.
“Are you planning on leaving more bills?” asked Gathers.
Carlson felt flustered. He hadn’t prepared answers. “I would rather not comment at this time—“
“What about the fight at Cherry Hill Library?” asked Gathers.
Carlson stared, confused. The other two reporters nodded.
“Fight? What fight?” Carlson asked.
“You didn’t hear? Then would you care to comment on reports that two patrons got into a brawl over who was the first to grab Tolstoy’s War and Peace? We understand one of the men is hospitalized.”
Carlson stared at the waiting faces, cameras, and microphones.
“I…uh…I hope everyone involved will be all right. I never meant for anyone…”
He gave up; this was too much. He ran from the crowd of reporters and hopped into his car. Fights? He never wanted fights. He was trying to encourage folks to become more civilized, not less.
He raced his car to Wilmington Library, intent on removing the remaining bills before someone got hurt in Miss Benson’s domain.
When Carlson entered the lobby he knew right away that something was wrong. There were several police in groups, talking to librarians. But it was what was behind them that shattered his world: books strewn from shelves, covering the floor in piles: fiction, non-fiction, biographies, mysteries—and his beloved classics as well.
He caught Miss Benson walking across the lobby. She was almost in tears.
“What happened here?” he asked.
“Somebody put $100 bills in various books in the library. When word got out, people came from miles away to search the books. It turned into a mob scene. As more bills were found, the level of madness increased.” A tear fell down her cheek. He offered her his hanky, but she refused.
He looked at the police momentarily.
“Do—do they know who was putting the bills in the books?”
She wiped her tear with the back of her hand.
“I suspect they might find out, don’t you think, Mr. Carlson?”
He swallowed. So she knew.
“You don’t think it’s a crime to put—“
“I don’t think it’s a crime, no. But I don’t think it is a very sophisticated action either. What do you think, Mr. Carlson?”
When he didn’t answer, she continued. “Now if you will excuse me, Mr. Carlson. As you can see, I am very busy. And I hope you will understand when the management at Wilmington Library asks if you would be good enough to patronize a different library the future. Good day, Mr. Carlson.”
She turned sharply and returned to the police.
Mr. Carlson turned to look at the books one last time. Miss Benson’s words pierced him; there were no other local libraries he could turn to. At the moment, those were likely being ransacked too. And to complicate matters, his face was now known in the media. He doubted he would be welcomed anywhere, except perhaps by charities, beggars and free-loaders around town.
No longer welcomed at his second home, he left the library, now to become even more of a recluse. What he thought was a good deed turned out to be the impetus of crimes. And what he thought was an exercise to encourage intellectualism, turned into a circus for greedy philistines. By his own deeds, he became despised by the person he cared about most—a punishment far worse than anything inflicted upon Dostoevsky’s protagonist.
He went home, walked in a daze to his bookshelf, sat down and began to read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
Hoffman Estates, IL.