LITERARY REVIEW

Borrowing books

LIKE most lovers, book lovers are possessive, too. I have to confess that anyone flirting with my bookshelf makes me jealous. The scene I dread is a classic one that repeats itself; most book collectors will know this moment well. A visitor wanders over to your bookshelf and begins browsing. You're hoping he'll become bored and return to his chair. But no — he has begun pulling out books and is now examining them closely, fondling them. He has lost all interest in you and the evening. When he finally does return to his chair, a small pile of books from your shelf accompanies him. You know what's coming but you are prepared. He'll ask and you'll say — not a chance! After all, this is not the first time that this has happened. The moment finally comes. The poor chap is just as nervous as you are, as he works up the courage to ask the question. "Oh", he says almost absentmindedly, as he gets up to leave, "can I borrow these books?" "Of course, no problem." "I'll return them in a week." "Take your time." "You don't mind, do you?" "Mind? Why should I mind?"

The book critic, Anatole Broyard, spoke for all possessive book lovers when he wrote in an essay about lending books: "The moment a book is lent I miss it. Each absent book alters those that remain on my shelf. The complexion of my library, the delicate gestalt, is spoilt. 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. The most dangerous part of lending books lies in the returning. At such times, friendships hang by a thread. I look for agony or ecstasy, for tears, transfiguration, trembling hands, a broken voice — but what the borrower usually says is, " I enjoyed it." I enjoyed it — as if that were what books were for."

"In theory I like lending," says Usha Shyam, a devoted reader, "but in actuality, I'm very careful nowadays about whom I loan books to. I first test them out by loaning them my copies of Reader's Digest and if that is returned on time and in undamaged condition, then I might think about lending books. Otherwise, I'll conveniently keep putting off finding the book to lend! Oh, but borrowing, I love and do borrow, but that's because I know I'll be good to the books and I'm particular about returning them too." I asked several book collectors what made lending a book so traumatic. The three most common answers were: "Few borrowers return the book when they say they will. I mean, how could they forget? I haven't been able to think of anything else since I lent it." "It isn't even about returning it late — they can take their time — it's that they mishandle the book. It'll come back dog-eared or soiled or with a creased spine." "I don't mind when it comes back or what state it comes back in. What disappoints me, what crushes me, is that — after all those months — they haven't read the book."

But we weren't always possessive, were we? One of the (uncontemplated) pleasures of childhood and adolescence was how rigorously we exchanged comics and books with our buddies. As adults we seem to have lost that joy. As children we were eager to swap comics with schoolmates; in college we freely lent books to each other. There was always a favourite writer or book we were urging our classmates to read. "You mean you actually haven't read any Wodehouse? I'll get you a whole bunch of them tomorrow." "I'm reading this really amazing book — Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — you can take my copy the moment I'm through." I remember this classmate passing on his copy of Catch 22 to the entire class — he felt no one could afford to not know something that funny. I myself buttonholed strangers with copies of The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev.

And all this at a time when none of us could afford to buy new copies of our favourite books if they were mishandled or lost. But we lent (and borrowed, ha-ha) unstintingly. The main thing was to get someone else to read a book that mattered to us. It filled you with evangelical purpose, and it made friendship possible. Reading the other's favourite writer was — is — such an intimate thing to do. Nothing seals a friendship or deepens a relationship the way book transactions can. One of the most endearing and generous gestures I've seen a book lover perform — time and time again — is my friend Prasanna inviting her friends to her bookshelf to borrow a book of their choice. "I'm a compulsive lender," she confessed. "However impractical this may seem, in the end it is a deeply fulfilling gesture. I like the idea of a book I care for in the hands of a friend."

pradeepsebastian@hotmail.com

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

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