Monday, January 13, 2014

Neither borrower nor lender

I feel about lending a book the way most fathers feel about their daughters living with a man out of wedlock.
Anatole Broyard, The New York Times Book Review

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be," says the character in Shakespeare's Hamlet. He must be a bibliophile.

I don't know which I hate more, lending one of my books or borrowing somebody else's book. I try to avoid doing either, but sometimes it isn't easy. Friends do, on occasion, ask to borrow a book, and it would be unthinkable to refuse. Other friends may offer one of their books or, worse, insist that I read it. Again, refusing would be ill mannered. So I am either stuck with a book I really don't want to read, but must and as quickly as possible, or forced to the suffer the pangs caused by a missing book that may or may not be returned.

To quote Broyard again, "Until the book is returned, I feel like a parent waiting up in the small hours for a teenage son or daughter to come home from the dubious party."

An early 19th century book collector named Richard Heber had an interesting solution for this problem. He proposed buying three copies of every book: one to read, one to keep on the shelf in pristine condition and a third to keep on hand just in case anyone asks to borrow it. Most of us, of course, have neither the money to purchase three copies of the same book nor the space to store them. Still it sounds like a wonderful idea.

When I sold my first edition of Sue Grafton's "A Is for Alibi" for $500 a few years ago, the book dealer said he would have offered much more if my copy had not been so worn. I explained that not only had I read the mystery myself, but I had allowed at least a couple of friends to read it, too. Why did I do that? he wanted to know. Why indeed. I wished then I had had more than one copy on my shelf.

Books are rarely returned in the same condition they were in when they were borrowed, if they are even returned at all. It takes time to read a book, and many people begin reading books with the best of intentions but never get around to finishing them. Meanwhile, the book goes on a shelf or under a stack of magazines and is forgotten. By the time that book is rediscovered years later, they will have forgotten where it came from in the first place. Was it purchased or borrowed? And if borrowed, from whom? Who knows? Well, the owner of the book probably knows, but it is considered bad form to actually request the return of a book.

I did so once after a dear friend borrowed Nick Hornby's novel A Long Way Down. I loved the book, and I was pleased that my friend loved it, too. But she had given it to another friend, who also loved it and gave it to somebody else. My friend didn't know who had the book now, but she bought me a new paperback to replace it. Problem solved? Not really. I had purchased Hornby's novel when I was in England, and it was a nice British edition that wasn't readily available in the U.S. So it was the same book, but not quite the same book. It now sits on my shelf like an imposter.

As bothersome as lending out books can be, borrowing the books of others can be just as bad. I prefer to read my own books in my own time at my own pace. And when I enjoy a book, I want to keep it, not give it back to somebody else. That's why I rarely read library books, even though I belong to at least three libraries right now and am writing this today in yet another library.

"To the doting book lover," to quote Broyard yet again, "the idea of reading a borrowed book is disgusting, an unclean habit akin to voyeurism." That may be a little strong, but still it comes close to how I feel.  When a friend learned I had read and enjoyed Little Dorrit a couple of years ago, she gave me a handwritten list of all the many Charles Dickens novels in her possession and invited me to borrow any of them. As much as I would love to see her Dickens collection, I avoid asking to view her books for fear she will insist that I borrow one. I would much rather read my own books

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