Literary Crimes

I once stole 1984 from the English department storeroom. It wasn’t the only book I acquired that way, but the Orwell is the one I remember. Petty thievery might have been the only subject I excelled at in high school, so over years I built a small library of books marked with due date stamps and resource numbers. Though my reading habits weren’t without risk, the teachers indifference provided enough cover to slip into the E block unquestioned. The storeroom, more an oversized closet than a true room, was lined with ceiling high shelves storing swollen boxes of required reading. Some boxes were labelled with the title and author it held while others had just the book name handwritten in fading marker. Many though, were enticingly blank.

At first I stuck to the boxes of writers I knew until I’d exhausted that somewhat limited list and was forced onto the unknowns. There was plenty to sift through and, as the chances of being caught increased the longer stayed, I developed a method to find the worthy. I’d pull out a book and read everything on the back cover. If the publishers blurb held up, I’d flip to a random page and start reading from the first line of dialogue and if I was still with it by the bottom of the page, I’d consider it a keeper. The 1984 would have passed through the method and added to my library, where it probably stayed unopened for months, possibly several months, while my laborious reading rate caught up with my far more efficient pilfering.

The 1984 was a paperback with an entirely black cover except for the all in caps title and a high contrast image of the loud end of a bright red megaphone concealing the face of the person yelling into it. I should have taken that as a warning. The book was weary with the mishandling of students who placed no value on what was forced on them and it wore the injuries of being pushed to the bottom of school bags or tossed on under beds. Its corners were creased, dogeared, torn and the broken spine disintegrated steadily as I read, dropping yellowed pages like it had decided to give up. Somehow this added something to what I read. Reading it was difficult, sometimes disorienting and always fragile without any certainly of it lasting out the day.

I learnt later, years after it had been discarded and new copies bought, lent, lost, and rebought, that particular copy was published by Penguin, denoted by their orange encircled bird perched, somehow ridiculously defiant, smack centre in the O of the authors surname. That logo would come to mean something for me, a waymarker along a vein of ideas that loosened the questions that school failed to unravel. The first thread was drawn out by that 1984.


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