I share a common trait with many other book lovers and collectors: I dislike lending my hardbacks and paperbacks though I’m not averse to borrowing a couple now and then. This oddity stems from my experience that borrowed books are seldom returned.
I find book borrowers are basically of two types - those who return them and those who don’t. The latter usually outnumber the former. If my books do come back, much to my chagrin they are often dog-eared, torn, limp or jacketless - a far cry from the immaculate state in which they leave my bookshelf. Arguably, book borrowers are the bane of book collectors.
Small wonder then that British essayist Charles Lamb branded book borrowers as “those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves and creators of odd volumes”. Faced with an inveterate book borrower-cum-defaulter, Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott is said to have tacked this note to a cherished book: “Please return this book. I find that though many of my friends are poor arithmeticians, most of them are good bookkeepers!” And American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson wryly defined friends as “people who borrow my books and set wet glasses on them”. Tongue-in-cheek remarks no doubt, but they do reflect a book lender’s angst.
During the Raj a British librarian in a planter’s club in Munnar tackled this vexed problem with much innovation. A small printed appeal, in verse, was pasted in every book, reading: “To those who may borrow/ This readable tome/ Remember its sorrow/ At leaving its home/ Don’t bend it, don’t burn it/ Don’t tear it in two/ And for God’s sake return it/ Whatever you do!” There couldn’t have been a more emphatic and unsubtle reminder that borrowed books must be returned intact. And, thanks to it, they were.
Personally speaking, I prefer to keep books wedged tight in my bookshelves - sans those unsightly hiatuses that book borrowers leave. This also prevents my little granddaughter from shredding them - a favoured pastime that makes me wonder whether she’s in the same league as errant book borrowers!
However, despite my resolve I usually end up parting with my books all too easily. Bluntly turning down a request is beyond me. Thus the number of titles I’ve lost over the years - some of which I haven’t even read - must be considerable. But, thanks to my passion for reading, others soon take their place in my bookshelves. Indeed I don’t need Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple to figure out where most of my missing Agatha Christie whodunnits are holed up!
In this context Shakespeare’s sage advice comes to mind: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Bolstering this rather ironically, I recall the cheeky witticism of a habitual book borrower: “Never lend books for no one ever returns them,” he quipped. “The only books I have are those that others have lent me!”
George N Netto