Would You Mind if I Borrowed this Book?
By: Roger Rosenblatt
Time Magazine, April 5, 1982
Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folk have lent me.—Anatole France
Of all the terrifying circumstances to which one’s home is vulnerable, nothing equals that of a guest who stares straight at one’s bookshelves. It is not the judgmental possibility that is frightening: the fact that one’s sense of discrimination is exposed by his books. Indeed, most people would much prefer to see the guest first scan, then peer and turn away in boredom or disapproval. Alas, too often, the eyes, dark with calculation, shift from title to title as from girl to girl in an overheated dance hall. Nor is that the worst. It is when those eyes stop moving that the heart too stops. The guest’s body twitches; his hand floats up to where his eyes have led it. There is nothing to be done. You freeze. He smiles. You hear the question even as it forms: “Would you mind if I borrowed this book?”
(Mind? Why should I mind? The fact that I came upon that book in a Paris bookstall in April 1959—the 13th I believe it was, the afternoon, it was drizzling—that I found it after searching all Europe and North America for a copy; that it is dog-eared at passages that mean more to my life than my heartbeat; that the mere touch of its pages recalls to me in a Proustian shower my first love, my best dreams. Should I mind that you seek to take all that away? That I will undoubtly never get it back? That even if you actually return it to me one day, I will be wizened, you cavalier, and the book spoiled utterly by your mishandling? Mind?)
“Not at all. Hope you enjoy it.”
“Thanks. I’ll bring it back next week.”
“No rush. Take your time. [Liar.]”
Not that there is any known way to avoid these exchanges. One has books; one has friends; they are bound to meet. Charles Lamb, who rarely railed, waxed livid on the subject: “You borrowers of books—those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes.” But how are such people to be put off, since they are often we, and the non-return of borrowed books is as old as books themselves? (“Say, Gutenberg, what’s this? And may I borrow it?”) It is said that Charles I clutched a Bible as he mounted the scaffold. One shudders to imagine the last earthly question he heard.
Still, this custom confutes nature. In every other such situation, the borrower becomes a slave to the lender, the social weight of the debt so altering the balance of a relationship that a temporary acquisition turns into a permanent loss. This is certainly true with money. Yet it is not at all true with books. For some reason a book borrower feels that a book, once taken, is his own. This removes both memory and guilt from the transaction. Making matters worse, the lender believes it too. To keep up appearances, he may solemnly extract an oath that the book be brought back as soon as possible; the borrower answering with matching solemnity that the Lord might seize his eyes were he to do otherwise. But it is all a play. Once gone, the book is gone forever. The lender, fearing rudeness, never asks for it again. The borrower never stoops to raise the subject.
Can the borrowers be thwarted? There are attempts. Some hopefuls glue EX LIBRIS stickers to the inside covers (clever drawings of animals wearing glasses and so forth)—as if the presence of Latin and the imprint of a name were so formidable as to reverse a motor reflex. It never works. One might try slipping false jackets on one’s books—a cover for The Secret Agent disguising Utility Rates in Ottawa: A Woman’s View. But book borrowers are merely despicable, not stupid; they tend to leaf before they pluck. Besides, the interesting thing about the feeling of loss when a book is borrowed is that the book’s quality rarely matters. So mysterious is the power of books in our lives that every loss is a serious loss, every hole in the shelf a crater.
And this, of course, is the key to the sense of helplessness in this matter. Our books are ourselves, our characters, our insulation against those very people who would take away our books. There, on that wall, Ahab storms. Hamlet mulls. Molly Bloom says yes yes yes. Keats looks into Chapman, who looks at Homer, who looks at Keats. All this happens on a bookshelf continually—while you are out walking the dog, or pouting, or asleep. The Punic Wars rage; Emma Bovary pines; Bacon exhorts others to behave the way he never could. Here French is spoken. There Freud. So go war and peace, pride and prejudice, decline and fall, perpetually in motions as sweeping as Milton’s or as slight as Emily Dickinson considering the grass. Every evening Gatsby looks at Daisy’s green light, which is green forever. Every morning Gregor Samsa discovers that he has been transformed into a giant insect.
These things are not what we have, but what we are. Leigh Hunt exulted: “Nothing can deprive me of my value for such treasures. I can help the appreciation of them while I last, and love them till I dies, and perhaps, if fortune turns her face in kindness upon me before I go, I may chance some quiet day, to lay my over-beating temples on a book, and so have the death I most envy.” Plato was reputedly found dead with a book under his pillow, Petrarch in his library with his elbow resting on an open page. Books gave them more than solace. They were their lives extended, a way of touching eternity. “Go, little book!” wrote Chaucer at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, sending his work on a journey that no man could complete.
Small wonder, then, that people will do almost everything for books, to acquire and preserve them, to prevent their banning or burning. Stories of manuscripts lost or destroyed are especially heartbreaking because one knows how ephemeral ideas and images are, what vast effort it takes to dust off the confusions, tune out the noise, and create those books, that, for whatever inadequacies they may display, still set the mind in order for a time, giving it a spine and a binding. There may be no more pleasing picture in the world than that of a child peering into a book—the past and the future entrancing each other. Nor does anyone look quite so attractive as with a book in hand. How many people have fallen in love merely at the sight of someone reading.
All of which would appear to offer an argument that booklending our to be encouraged. It is the supreme selfless act, after all. Should we not abjure our pettiness, open our libraries, and let our most valued possessions fly from house to house, sharing the wealth? Certain clerics with vows of poverty did this. Inside their books was printed not EX LIBRIS but AD USUM—for the use of—indication that it is better to lend than to keep, that all life’s gifts are transitory. Should we not follow the clerics? OR might we just for once summon our true feelings on this subject and, upon hearing the terrible question, smile back and speak from the heart: “Mind? I’ll break your arm, you bastard!”