MUSINGS If reading is to remain a joy and an adventure, we must dare to be borrowers and lenders

M ore than a year ago, I lent someone my first edition of ‘Green Well Years' by Manohar Devadoss. The book contained rich ink drawings of mid-20th Century Madurai. It wasn't inscribed by the author, but tucked between the pages was a letter he wrote to me after he read my review. I have that letter safe on my bookshelf, but the book is gone.

Almost a year ago, I noticed the book was missing when I wanted to look something up. I recalled recommending it and pulling it out, I recalled telling the borrower the letter was precious to me, and her saying I had better hold on to the letter myself. I just couldn't remember who she was.

My female friends all diligently searched their shelves when I appealed to them, but the missing book remained a mystery. My husband then suggested that my mother might have it, and he was right. So my ‘Green Well Years' is safe on my mother's shelf in New Jersey, unless someone borrows it from her, and it will surely come back to me.

More unhappily, I once lent a precious classic, a gift from an old friend, to a new acquaintance. Weeks later I saw it on his bookshelf, unread and left slanting, so that the covers had loosened and the spine had cracked. I shamelessly asked for it back. Even more shamelessly, he insisted on keeping it longer. Finally, I bought a paperback copy of the book, thrust it on him as a gift and took my own treasure home. It still bears the scars of that excursion, and the episode killed all friendly feelings.

Some books never come home. ‘The Secret Garden' was appropriated by a neighbour's hospitalised child. ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel' was lost, even before I had read it, to a cousin who denied having borrowed it at all.

Almost every book lender tells a poignant tale of loss, but borrowing is just as fraught with emotion. As a teenager, I once borrowed Jim Corbett's ‘Man-eaters of Kumaon' from a family friend. When I was ready to return it, I couldn't find the book anywhere. I suffered torments of guilt until, weeks later, the slim paperback jumped out from its hiding place on the shelf.

When I borrow books now, I identify them with a post-it note and keep them on their own high shelf. From there, waiting to be read and restored to their rightful and loving owner, they beam reproaches down on me when I turn aside to watch television or de-seed tamarind.

Why do book lovers even step into these troubled waters? Because lending and borrowing are acts of friendship and adventure. We yearn to share our well-beloved joys with our friends. And after a certain age, when we buy books chiefly within our comfort zones, our fresh discoveries are usually made from borrowed books. A friend insists we must read this one, and we find a new treasure. Like people, books must sometimes leave home.