Borrower or lender?

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I’m a great believer in libraries, as you may have noticed. Not just the idea, you understand — though I know many people do love the idea of a place where books are on tap, just because it’s a Good Thing. (Have you noticed, by the way, that whenever there’s a threat to a library locals get aerated about it? Even though it’s often the case that it’s been years since they last entered one?)

No, I’m a great believer in libraries, and not just as places where I can get free wifi, or shelter from the rain, or get my food recycling bags but as somewhere I can actually borrow books. Funded by council tax (what some still quaintly call ‘rates’) libraries are a wonderful resource for accessing fiction and non-fiction, and taking it away with you. And reading it in your own time. Or not, as the case may be.

However, there are times when I think borrowing books is a Bad Thing.

And that’s when it comes to borrowing from friends — and more particularly them borrowing from me.

It’s been a year since I unpacked my books subsequent to moving house, when they made their way willy-nilly onto the nearest available shelf. A year on and I’m still looking for particular books that I knew I had at some stage before moving and now I can’t find them. In may be that, despite my searching comprehensively through my loose storage system, some have eluded my eagle eye or that my recollection of spine, or colour, or size, is faulty. I have high hopes they will turn up when I commit to a future re-shelve.

But a couple — at the very least — I have a hazy memory of lending to one friend or another, but it’s clear they haven’t come back. (The books, I mean. But sometimes the friends.) And the borrowers, strangely, have no memory of being lent them. This really is too bad. Have they or I succumbed to false memory syndrome? Have they done their own clear-out and sent them to a charity shop? Have they even read the book or books in the first place?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all one way: I too have had volumes pressed on me by enthusiastic acquaintances. If I took a book only out of politeness the object often sat accusingly on the shelf, gathering dust, unloved, unread. Other books were, for one reason or another, never returned (in one case because the person died) or else cost a packet to return when the owner suddenly moved to the other end of the country. You may be familiar with a few of these scenarios.

I’ve decided, therefore, where books are concerned, to act according to Polonius’ advice: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be: | For loan oft loses both itself and friend …”. No, if I’m going to participate in a scene in which a book changed hands it will be because neither party wants the book back.

Except if it’s a library book of course.

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23 thoughts on “Borrower or lender?

  1. Wise words. I think we’ve discussed lending books before. One notable example for me was when I lent a friend a great early Hilary Mantell book, only for her to come to me a few weeks later, saying ‘Oh, I gave that to so and so. Nice to share books around, isn’t it?’ Arrrrgh. Nice for you, when it’s not your book!
    But yes, you’re right, it goes both ways. I still have a book about the Black Death on my shelf that I know is my mum’s, though I must have had it ten years and I think she’s forgotten she ever owned it. And a friend recently leant me a book about the development of the teenage brain (preparing myself 🙂 ) and I still have it a month later, largely unread.
    Yes, only lend books you never want back.

    1. Thanks, Lynn. In the distant past I’ve contemplated putting a ‘This book belongs to …’ or ‘Stolen from ..’ book plate on a fly-leaf, or even a ‘Please return by’ date-stamped sheet inside lent books — but can you imagine the palaver, the cost, the pretentiousness?

      I reckon Polonius (too often played for laughs, in my view) got it right, as he so often did: “To thine own self be true etc” for instance.

      1. Yes, you need a log book and a signature from the borrower when they take the book and when they return it. Maybe a receipt too … 🙂 Well, Polonius certainly pays for any perceived flaws — and for hanging around drapery. 🙂
        I always thought you could dipense with most religious and moral rules, commandments and just have ‘Do unto others as you would be done by.’ That would work for the majority of problems, surely.

        1. I try, not always successfully, to live by the precept ‘Do as you would be done by’. On log books and receipts, Lynn, I think I might stick to not lending, so much more simple!

          1. Ha! Yes, I’m sure you’re right. The problem comes when you find yourself raving about a book you’ve just read and the person you’re talking to says ‘Ooh, I’d love to borrow that sometime.’ Then you have the awkwardness of keeping ‘forgetting’ to lend it to them.
            And if all human beings could live by ‘Do as you would be done by’, wouldn’t the world be a much nicer place ?

            1. Caroline Williams below has a good strategy for that love-to-borrow-that-‘sometime’ approach, along the lines of ‘join the waiting list!’ No more awkwardness …

              By the way, the fairies Bedonebyasyoudid and her sister Doasyouwouldbedoneby appear in Charles Kingsley’s rambling The Water-Babies, a now underrated and largely forgotten children’s classic (as I suggest in http://wp.me/s2oNj1-wb).

  2. Don’t look at me! I didn’t do it! Even though I would love to browse through your collection, it is a wee bit far away. Actually I seldom borrow books from other people; I like having my own. Thus I can feel justified in not “sharing them around” (join a Little Free Library if you want to do that, people.)

    1. No, Lory, I was not pointing fingers, rather I was implying that present company was excepted! I agree with having books of one’s own, so much more satisfying. I use the library if I don’t have the money or permanent shelf space for my own copy.

  3. I have had similar experiences yet I still do not understand the mindset of the borrower who fails to return books. I’ve had people loan out my books even after I made it clear that I was wanted it back when they finished! Some people, I think, have no concept of library rules; one never keeps a loaner.
    Now I limit my library to just one friend who has never failed to return a book. As far as I am concerned everyone else can go out and get a library card.

    1. The downside of sorting the sheep from the goats among one’s book-loving friends, Sari, is having fingers burnt with unreturned personal library books. I’m absolutely determined to avoid future trauma in this area, not to say inconvenience! At least, with being the secretary of the Friends of the local library, I can justifiably point wouldbe borrowers to the local institution under threat to do their bit for community services!

  4. My sister has a useful technique when a friend asks to borrow a book. She says “yes of course, but another friend has also asked to borrow it, so I’ll let you know when she’s finished with it.” Hopefully after a few weeks or so the friend then forgets that she asked.

    I still feel irritated with the friend who borrowed a novel on the early life of Michaelangelo, never gave it back and then lost touch . . . .

    1. A good strategy, Caroline, if one doesn’t want to risk alienating friends with a refusal, however nicely put. I commiserate with you over your missing Michelangelo novel — too late for regrets, I soon learnt never to lend out books I hadn’t yet read …

  5. I live in a place where no one ever says, “I’ll check it out at the library…” because the library almost definitely does not have whatever book we’re talking about. And so, I don’t have a personal attachment to libraries, although I do romanticize them, because I’ve yet to see a good library (with English books; not counting the Japanese ones) with my own eyes. I do like loaning my books out, though – my friends and colleagues have my LibraryThing address to see what books are available, and I use it to record and lendings and borrowings. There are books that never come back, and there were friends lost over unreturned books, but for each of those I’ve had friends saying they ended up getting their own copies, they loved the book so much, which makes me happy. (And of course, some books I refuse to lend out, like the ones that are out of print.)

    1. Libraries and library provision do vary so much, Mari, don’t they? While UK libraries are losing some of their broad selection due to continuing financial cutbacks, it’s often possible to acquire some more obscure or less middle-of-the-road titles through interlibrary loans. LibraryThing data is certainly useful, or would be for me if I actually round to cataloguing all my books,

      And yes, out of print books are definitely out of bounds for interpersonal loans!

  6. I have had to come back. I have had a bit of a think about this painful business of people borrowing books and never seeing them again. It really makes me wonder why anyone wants to ever borrow a book because I only ever want to possess or I don’t want it at all. Clearly books are not really important in this way to the ‘borrowers’ although they do seem to ‘want’ books badly, so the odds are always against you ever seeing the book again! Prevention better that cure then.

    Perhaps a bit of subtle reminding these precious things on your shelves and on your desk belong to you and are entirely unmovable even that one in the bathroom. They wouldn’t dream of borrowing that one or would they borrow that nice teapot sitting on the window sill or even yesterday’s newspaper or your knives and forks in the kitchen without some sort of conversation surely. So a cheerful notice (to include a big arrow showing ‘the place’) should educate old or new borrowers quietly what they ‘can do’. It may give you the space and time to say ‘no’ or even explain about the no borrowing policy…..
    ‘Although the books you see are part of a varied precious personal collection it includes some rare out of print editions ~ you are welcome to help yourself to the books on this free book shelf’

    A notice reduced to the last 14 words might suffice! (with a handy charity donation box?)

    1. I suppose our maxim, Gill, must be ‘By their attitude to books will we know our true friends’. Like you, books to me are precious things, especially if I’ve given them shelf-room. I never dream of asking friends if I can borrow a book I can see they’ve got — I might ask what they thought about it, but if I wanted it enough I’d acquire it legitimately for myself, whether by buying it or borrowing a library copy. Your analogy with other household items is very apropos, and the same applied to tools which in the past I reluctantly lent out and nearly always regretted.

      As I’m still downsizing my shelves any free books tend to be pretty soon given away to family, friends or charity, so no need to resort to a notice — yet! But a good idea.

  7. Long ago I took to writing down names of friends (and students!) to whom I lent books, and improved the return rate by about 90%. And when books weren’t returned, the borrower lost lending privileges. I’ve been known to knock on my neighbor’s door to retrieve books she’d finished but set down somewhere and then forgot she had. No malice, just a mind on other things.

    But I’m also trying to change my protective mindset. What good is a book that sits on a shelf unread for years, even though I plan to read (or reread) it? I’m willing to admit that there’s something a bit worrying about the type of security that comes from knowing I can easily pull a particular book off my shelf.

    More than a decade ago, when a fire raged through my apartment building and my daughter and I were on our way to stay with a friend until we could get back home, I felt, for a moment, “free” of the things that keep me tethered. It was a surprisingly good feeling. We ended up losing very little, but I have to keep reminding myself of that momentary feeling of near weightlessness anytime I long for a wayward book (or broken dish, or faded photograph). I will always have plenty of books to read — losing a favorite or two is just another example of entropy.

    1. It’s true that possessiveness can get obsessive, Lizzie, and I do admire those people who (like so many, too many, refugees) lose everything — house, friends, family — and yet remain optimistic where one would expect them to give way to despair. Would I have been pragmatic if I’d lost everything to, say, a fire as you almost did? I don’t know, and I find it hard to imagine how I’d view it.

      In the meantime for me, and I guess for most others in a similar position, it’s a question of being in control: I decide what I want to keep and I decide what I want to give away, not anyone else. Psychologically, I suppose that’s what a lot of being human is about. (I’ll stop pontificating now!)

      1. On the other hand, Chris, despite all my desires to cut ties and let go of things, in my desk at school is a list of students and the books they borrowed nearly 15 years ago. Evidently I can let go of the books, but not of the lists.

  8. Hi, an excellent post – with food for thought, too, as an added bonus. I was born a natural lender. I like to own nice things, sure, but when I have something that’s particularly good and which gives me pleasure, I like to share that. Call it the ‘human psyche’ if you wish. But, years of loss and disappointment following the non-return of books (in particular) have eroded that joy of sharing to the point where I, too, no longer lend them. Sad, but it’s always those copies that are especially valued that don’t seem to make it back.

    1. You’re quite right, Steve, I’m missing a few books I’m pretty sure I leant out without making a note of who to, and one in particular is out of print and available secondhand for more than I paid for it in the first place!

      It came to the point where someone offered me my own book back as something I’d like to read! They seemed disbelieving until I pointed out my signature on the inside page …

      Thanks for the follow, by the way, and I’m hoping to read up some more of your posts in due course.

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