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A woman walks into her local library and hands the librarian a book. He takes it gingerly, seeing that the book is old. He wonders if the woman who is returning it has been careless with the volume. Not so, it turns out. The book was actually taken out from that same library by the woman's grandfather, then stored in an attic, which she had recently cleaned out. The book — which is about gardening, or Napoleon, or maybe both — has remained intact, sandwiched between dusty yearbooks and issues of Life magazine. And now she is returning it, closing the bookish circle first opened so very long ago.

Everyone loves this storyline — librarians, readers, reporters — which is why it so frequently appears in the press. It is, in many ways, the Rudy of library stacks.

This week, for example, we had "Book missing for more than 150 years returned to Kentucky library":

Centre College in Danville, Ky., received the 185-year-old book last week after a student intern found it while taking inventory of books in exhibit rooms at the Jacobs Hall Museum at nearby Kentucky School for the Deaf. 

In July, a book returned in Ohio after being on loan 41 years netted $299 in fines, not to mention plenty of gleeful press coverage.

Last year, a similarly auspicious return occurred in Chicago, when a book was returned after 78 years in captivity. Reported The Huffington Post, one of several outlets to cover the story:

The Chicago Public Library was reunited last week with a book so many years overdue no one even realized it was missing from its shelves.

In the midst of a rare, three-week amnesty program -- where the nation's third-largest city's library system is forgiving fines for any overdue items that are returned to them -- the library received a limited edition copy of Oscar Wilde's classic "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Reuters reports.

The literary treasure was last checked out in 1934.

And in Dublin, a book published in 1538 was returned after having been out on loan for 100 years:

The hero of the story is an Irish barrister who plucked the tome from a junk shop. The attorney paid the princely sum of €90 (about $119), picking up an antique mirror into the bargain. Realizing there was something rather special about the book, he brought it to Marsh's Library, where the librarians recognized it as their own.

Back in 2009, a book stolen by a soldier during the Civil War was returned to the library at Washington & Lee University after 145 years. That's trumped, however, by a book returned 221 years after it was taken out from the New York Society Library. The tardy patron was America's first president, George Washington, so perhaps the lapse can be forgiven.

What's really curious, however, is the staying power of this rather quotidian story, our seemingly endless fascination with an old book returning to the place where it belongs.

This surely has to do, in part, with the rise of digital books and the attendant diminishing of libraries as places of an intellectual exchange that occurs on very real, physical terms. You are handed a bound sheaf of paper; you, in turn, promise to return it. That a book can outlast the vicissitudes of time — wars, floods, sharknados — to return to its assigned place on the shelf reaffirms the power of the book as a physical object.

It does not, like an e-book, reside in the digital ether, its existence predicated on the click of a button or swipe of a finger. The book has to survive. And when it manages to do so for decades, even centuries, the very notion of survival is celebrated, much as one would celebrate a soldier returning from war. Thus when Dublin's Archbishop Marsh Library reclaimed its 1538 volume of Galen's works, CNN noted that "library staff members said they were delighted to 'welcome back an old friend.'"

And then there is the recipient, the library, today often little more than an Internet cafe with books. The return of an old library book is an act of pure civic obedience. The old book could just as well be sold, put out with the recycling, left to rot in a basement. To return it to a library is to imply that libraries still matter, that they are the custodians of objects that remain relevant to our society. That we should have libraries, and books, and people who patronize them.

Back in 2011, a man travelled from California to Maine to return a 200-year-old book to the Federal Society Library of Cambden. "The journey these books have been on is pretty fantastic,” an archivist at the library said. It is that journey, an Odyssean return, that we love so much.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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