The Trial and Joy of Lending Books

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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.

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.