Mendel Letters 49 — Book Thief

In the book Teaching Stories by Judy Logan there is a chapter she calls “Stealing Stories.” One of Logan’s middle school students was caught stealing lipstick from a store. She didn’t really want the lipstick. She was responding to a dare by her friends. Logan’s student was feeling pretty down, afraid this one act had marked her for life as a thief. After a call from the girl’s mother, Logan decided to share with the class her own “stealing story” from when she was young and soon other students told their stories. The point of “Stealing Stories” is that one wrong act doesn’t define you as a human being and you can choose to behave differently. I like the chapter and the lesson because it reminds me of my own stealing story and how it made me feel. I was a book thief. Let me explain.

In fourth grade I became an assistant to the district librarian and helped out in the afternoons in the district library that was housed at my elementary school, PS 104. My job was mostly putting books back on shelves in the correct location using the Dewey Decimal system. 500s were science. 900s were history. 790 was sports. 910 was travel. Fiction was organized separately and sorted by the last name of the author.

Working in the library I had a lot of time out of class when I was free to read, which I think was the reason my teachers made me the district’s library assistant. In sixth grade I came across a science book on nuclear energy for kids with science projects you could make. The project that fascinated me the most was a home-made spinthariscope. A spinthariscope is a portable radiation detector as particles emitted by deteriorating radioactive material become visible against the background of a phosphorescent screen. Today it hardly seems like something a kid should be able to make at home, but I really wanted to build one, which meant I had to have this book. The librarian who I loved let me take it home to read and I never brought it back.

It took me a while to assemble the materials I needed for the spinthariscope but I had it ready for the 7th grade science fair at JHS 82 the next year. I built a small rectangular wooden box that tapered at one end and was held together by black electrical tape. I got the wood pieces from an old cigar box and used one of my father’s small magnifying lens mounted in a cardboard cylinder from a roll of toilet paper as an eye piece. I was able to purchase a small jar of Zinc Sulfide phosphorescent paint at a hobby shop and for radioactive material, I scrapped radium from the dial of an old broken watch that had belonged to my mother’s father. The radium, which has a half-life of 1,600 years, was glued to a small piece of paper mounted on pin stuck through one side of the device. The entire contraption was about six inches long. To make it work, you held the eye piece opening up to a light bulb to activate the phosphorescent screen and when you looked inside you could see tiny flashes of radioactive light.

I submitted the project without an elaborate oaktag explanation and without a light source, partly because I felt really guilty about stealing the science book. The spinthariscope was buried on a table somewhere in the junior high school library and I never recovered it after the science fair. I was the only person ever to see my spinthariscope work and I don’t know what happened to the book.

Funny thing is, I wasn’t cured of my criminal ways. I confess that I have “stolen” other books from libraries, old books that were never check out, so I could give them a good home where they are loved. I’ve never stolen anything other than books.

Your son


Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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