Borrowing and Lending Books

gregoryIf you haven’t been feeling guilty lately, one way to invoke that guilt is to peruse the shelves of your library for books that belong to others. Recently, for example, I came across a catechism of the Catholic Church I had “borrowed” thirty-five years ago! There is no way I can return it. I have another book, an early history of college student movements. It turns out the lender died ten years ago. And those are just ones I’ve “happened” upon. For this, there is this quote of Anatole France:

Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other people have lent me.”

Feel better? Those folks should have expected that the books would not be returned. Actually, the truth is, I often lend (really give away) books that I have no expectation of getting back. In some cases, I don’t really want them back. And the truth is, with over-flowing bookshelves I need to pass along books in any way I can. Lending (giving) a book to someone who will find some help or enjoyment in it just makes sense. Another quote, attributed to Joe Queenen:

“Lending books to other people is merely a shrewd form of housecleaning.”

Of course, there is that awkward situation of someone wanting to borrow a book that you really treasure. We can try things like bookplates signifying whose book this is, or from whose library (ex libris) this comes. Some use embossed stamps, some just inked stamps. Some even go to the trouble of library cards. Most of us just lend the book, bidding it “good bye” in our hearts, sometimes wistfully eyeing it on our friend’s shelves when we visit. Only on rare occasions have I said, “this book is kind of a family treasure that we don’t lend.” And then I feel terrible. This sentiment, uttered by an unknown booklover captures the feeling:

“No books are lost by loaning except those you particularly wanted to keep.”

Likewise, there is this saying attributed to Anatole Boyard:

“I feel about lending a book the way most fathers feel about their daughters living with a man out of wedlock.”

I’m not sure I want to take it that far (but then I’ve never had daughters!). Most of the time, I feel, at least with a good book, that what is in its pages is too good to be kept to oneself, to collect dust on my shelves if it can be of benefit to another. Lending books can be a way to give what is most precious about our experience with that book to another so that the experience is multiplied in the sharing. Laura Bush once said,

“The power of a book lies in its power to turn a solitary act into a shared vision.” 

Perhaps it is good to get over this thing of personal ownership of our books. As I get older, I realize that if I don’t pass along my books, particularly making sure those that matter get to those who matter to me, it will be left to someone else who probably won’t do this nearly as lovingly. The words of C. S. Lewis are a particular comfort to me:

My friend said, “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be books in Heaven. But you will find that your library in Heaven contains only some of the books you had on earth.” “Which?” I asked. “The ones you gave away or lent.” “I hope the lent ones won’t still have all the borrowers’ dirty thumb marks,” said I. “Oh yes they will,” said he. “But just as the wounds of the martyrs will have turned into beauties, so you will find that the thumb-marks have turned into beautiful illuminated capitals or exquisite marginal woodcuts.*

*C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 216.

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