The Peril of Lending Books

November 9, 2011 § 16 Comments

Once upon a time, I lent a book to someone. It was devastating. Such playful and fine-tuned words I gave! Such playful and fine-tearing hands that got ahold of it! Yes, she had kids. Plural. And dogs.

We have since drifted apart.

I have also lent books which have never returned to my hands, sometimes without the borrower having even read it before losing it. This too is cause for heartbreak. (If a book falls open in the middle of a forest and no one is around, are the words still there?) Maybe there is a magical and peaceful bookshelf to which all loaned and missing books find their way. I imagine the space would look something like this:

As a result of my book possibly making its way towards this haven, I get a little antsy and repeatedly ask if the borrower has read it. Eventually I forget until it’s returned. Then, oh joy! I repeat author and journalist Christopher Morley’s prayer of gratitude:

When I loaned this book, I deemed it as lost; I was resigned to the business of the long parting; I never thought to look upon its pages again. But now that my book has come back to me, I rejoice and am exceedingly glad! Bring hither the fatted morocco and let us rebind the volume and set it on the shelf of honor, for this my book was lent and is returned again.

I am always torn (better me than my books!) between wanting to say, “This book contains the entirety of love, joy and everything good. Quick, read it! Take my copy!” and “Forget it! No wrong in self-preservation.” If only I had this bookplate inscribed in all my books, I could say I do not lend for pure motives – I’m trying to be holy, blameless, and set apart from the vice of gambling:

Yet even if one does lend and get the book back, and it makes it through the kids, the coffee cups, the under-the-bed dust bunnies, and floor-of-the-car tramplings, the peril is not over. The New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard wrote,

The most dangerous part of lending books lies in the returning. At such times, friendships hang by a thread. I look for agony or ecstasy, for tears, transfiguration, trembling hands, a broken voice – but what the borrower usually says is, “I enjoyed it.”

I enjoyed it – as if that were what books were for.

In the end, I think I’m taking to heart this poem by Hal Sirowitz:

Lending Out Books

You’re always giving, my therapist said.
You have to learn how to take. Whenever
you meet a woman, the first thing you do
is lend her your books. You think she’ll
have to see you again in order to return them.
But what happens is, she doesn’t have the time
to read them, and she’s afraid if she sees you again
you’ll expect her to talk about them, and will
want to lend her even more. So she
cancels the date. You end up losing
a lot of books. You should borrow hers.

Such a wise therapist. I read this poem in a book I have. And no, you may not borrow it.

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§ 16 Responses to The Peril of Lending Books

  • e says:

    That poem just upped my already high distrust levels. Gah. That observation from Anatole Broyard is so true. I hate lending someone a book that was clearly the greatest thing since bread personally sliced by Dickens himself, and her/his response is, “It was cool.” I want to scream, “Do you have no soul?”

    I read this yesterday: http://gigaom.com/2011/11/04/what-happens-to-ownership-as-the-world-goes-digital/ Tangential but interesting.

    • This is so interesting! Especially when it comes to different mediums. I don’t care so much about owning movies, but music and books I prefer to get myself (one reason I haven’t done much with Spotify, other than the fact that it’s hooked up to facebook). It’s nice for accessing music at work, but I do have pride in collecting and being a curator.

  • Laura Mettler says:

    I love to think that all lost books end up in such a happy home. Personally, I wouldn’t mind being loved and lost if I made it there. Or, “would mind less”. There must be wildly appreciative readers in such a place. Maybe I’ll be the curator instead. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful vocation? To love the worthy books that haphazardly made it into the wrong hands? To restore their bindings and smooth their creases? To laugh and cry over their use as much as their content? To read a book as it was made to be read, especially a child’s book?

  • Sarah Addison wrote a cute book (using average words) in which books act like a fairy godmother to one of the main characters. They appear out of nowhere, always hinting advice to her with their titles and sometimes she can’t evade them, no matter how hard she tries. It made me smile.

    • Adriel, that reminds me of another book (maybe recommended by Laura?) called The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley, about what happens to book characters when the pages close. A fun read too.

  • Jaz says:

    I remember the first book I loaned to a friend. He was going on a trip and asked for reading material. Knowing that I was a Tolkien fan, he wanted to borrow my copy of Fellowship. I specifically told him that I was paranoid about my books and even breaking the spine was traumatic to me. It was only with much reassurance that I was able to loan him a copy. It came back to me completely trashed. From that day on I decided to never loan another book out. I’ve only broken that rule when I considered the friendship more valuable than the book. Even then, I have found it less painful to just buy a second copy for loaning purposes.

    • The “buying a second copy for loaning purposes” is not a bad idea. I’m always finding books at thrift stores or library sales that I love but already own. Maybe I should just have a stockpile for those moments when I just must, must share.

  • Andrea Westaby says:

    Ouch…I hope I didn’t cause you such pain when I borrowed Northanger Abbey from you in college! Of course then it was just going two dorm rooms down and across the hall. I don’t think I would ever borrow a friend’s book now, what with the kids and dog and dust bunnies and all.
    As a side note…I love the book picture. If I owned my own computer I would make it my desktop background. :)

  • Jacki says:

    This reminds me of the last book I let someone borrow. It was a couple of years ago, and I still haven’t gotten it back. I’ve thought about asking about it, and someday I might. But I always think of the fact that I also have books I’ve borrowed from people just as long ago and have yet to return.

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