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?” “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: “Your borrowers of
booksthose 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 a custom as old as books themselves? 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.