The Trial and Joy of Lending Books


Books for Lending Library. Photo by Ivan Ives. State Library of New South Wales, 29.10.1943, Pix Magazine. No known copyright restrictions via Flickr

It seems that the old adage, “neither a borrower nor a lender be” applies in the realm of books, as in other matters. The basic issue is that often borrowed books are never returned, and it seems that what makes the difference is whether the lender actually expected the book to be returned. This, for me was the takeaway, from a recent discussion at the Bob on Books Facebook Page.

For a number of participants, lending books and not getting them back was so painful that they have decided to no longer lend their books. One of the hardest experiences was a person who lent a valued first edition they hadn’t finished reading only to have the person who borrowed it deny having received it. One person had a roommate move away and take their books. In an article on the same subject, one person found a book they lent in a book sale–with their name inside–and they re-bought it.

For some, it seems that their personal libraries are very precious and, as one person put it, they “can’t bear to part with books.” Another wrote: “My name is _____and I am an official book hoarder 😉 I don’t lend them out anymore.” Perhaps we need to start chapters of Bookhoarders Anonymous!

Some seem to have worked out ways to get back most or all of the books they lend. Some only lend to family and find they get those books back, or only lend to trustworthy friends. One friend finds a post-it note inside the front cover helps people remember from whom they borrowed the book (which may be the problem for some!). Then there are the fearless ones who don’t mind going after people to retrieve their borrowed books. Most of us are just too polite to ask or don’t want to engender ill will with their friends. One particularly intrepid person wrote: “I’ve been known to go get books back even when it was dangerous to approach the people I loaned them to!” Another observed a difference in return rates when someone asked to borrow a book versus when the book owner offered it to another to borrow.

One difficulty mentioned by some is that books do not come back in the same condition they were given out. Dog ears and folded or frayed pages, crumbs of food or stains, worn or torn covers and more are some of the condition issues people have had with their borrowed books.

Some lend very selectively, having certain books they will not lend. A response I found out of the ordinary but thought provoking because it elevated the act of sharing a book was this:

“I seldom lend out a book. For these reasons. Giving someone a book is a special thing it is like casting bread out upon the water, feeding the imagination, and giving wisdom. Another reason is that it’s intellectual property. That author worked so hard to write us a story and should be rewarded for their efforts. The gift of reading is eternal. I love buying books for friends n family.”

One approach that some take is simply to lend a duplicate copy of the book. One individual, when asked if one of their books can be borrowed, simply orders a copy of the book online and has it sent to the person. Either buying a copy for one’s friend or replacing the book quietly seems to be an approach many take to neither lose a book that means something, nor a valued friend. A professor combs used book stores for copies of books she likes to give to her students.

Finally some just seem to hold their books more loosely. They basically conclude that the book they lend is really a gift and neither ask for or expect it to be returned. For some, they think that if they’ve loved a book, the best thing they can do is share it, and some even encourage the person not to give it back, but pass it along to someone else who will like it. I also got the idea that there are some who are like me and are happy not to get books back because they already have more books than they have room for.

I will leave the last word to C. S. Lewis, whose counsel gives me great comfort:

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.

3 thoughts on “The Trial and Joy of Lending Books

  1. I was off line several days and missed that on facebook. I could have shared plenty! haha. But an amusing story. A few yrs ago I observed for a day in the classroom of a high school teacher who taught Bible/theology (obviously a Christian school). A couple weeks later I was in my local used book store and found a theology book I purchased, and getting home I noted it had this teachers full name and phone number in it. (I was surprised he’d trade in a book with his name and number in it!) Also a small world, as I had not previously known this teacher before observing in his class. I e-mailed him and told him I’d purchased his book. He replied that he had LENT that book to someone, and he could hardly believe it was for sale in the used book store!! Doh!! I offered to return it to him, but he said that was okay – I could keep it. But how terrible of this person to trade his book into the used book store – WHEN IT even had his name and number in it to remind the borrower who it belonged to!


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