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Lending Books

People say you should never lend a book unless you are prepared to lose it. Mentally you have to convince yourself you are giving not lending, that has to be the way you frame it, though for reasons of etiquette and the odd dynamic of forcing books on people plus the off chance of actually maybe getting it back, you adopt the ‘lending’ rather than ‘giving’ approach. Lending a book that is old and knackered is also not as subtly insulting as giving an old book to someone. Giving a book seems to involve the exterior value of the book, its look and condition, its resale value, the cost it was to the giver; it is much more like a conventional gift than a lent book, which, like a library book, is all about the content and not the container. (This said, one never lends a kindle book or an ebook, probably because it is so easy to get a copy. But also because there is even less container, less ‘objectness’ about a kindle than a lent book. It is so depressingly stripped down it is like those spacemen nutrition pills which were supposed to replace real food by 2020- when actually we have simply moved in EXACTLY the opposite direction toward ever more elaborate and tasty dishes).


We live in times where books have never been cheaper. Often we have too many. I accumulate books very very easily. I am, despite my protestations to the people I share my house with- my wife and children- a bibliomane. More of a maniac than a philiac I’d say. I am not sure I really love books, I just seem to need them and I seem to be able to get a lot of them very easily. I get them from second hand shops, from the Co-op which has a scheme where books are given away and then sold back to people at 50p each. In the town where I live the quality of reader is high- lots of good books turn up at the co-op. I’ve ‘borrowed’ books from a telephone kiosk microlibrary in my street. A disused phone box, still a bit urinous and musty, has about five shelves of books- and I’ve found volumes of poetry (even Wallace Stevens- a bit of a triumph that). I have never returned any of these ‘borrowed’ items, I am not sure why. My standards are higher with the similar ‘library’ at the train station I visit each week. I have yet to borrow ‘The little world of Don Camillo’ from that library but it has been there for weeks. It is the BCA edition (book club associates) a style of jacket and inner cover that reminds me of holiday homes we stayed at when I was young. In such holiday homes I started reading Alastair Maclean novels and Hunting the Desert Whale- a travel book by Earle Stanley Gardner- a very underestimated crime writer these days, though huge in his day- I suspect he is every bit as good a writer as Simenon, though not dark and therefore not fashionable. So I resist some of the books. Others I took knowing they were ‘worth something’. I found a book about railway interiors which was worth £8 on the internet, so not a huge amount but enough to make me feel as if I had got one up on the day. I even thought of trying to sell it to the local bookshop I visit and often buy things from, usually when I am in a mood to buy- dangerous condition so I try not to spend more than £10-£15 when every book looks worth getting (that’s how you know the mania is upon you).


And of course I buy online: ebay, amazon, Abe. Maybe two or three a week. Always cheap. Well, almost always.


I get a few books from publishers and writer friends. Not that many. 


So I get books which means lending them is natural. But the ease of getting them means, I am sure, that books are not that scarce or sought after anymore. The internet and kindle have made reading almost free. Why would you lend anything except when you were travelling with someone and there were no shops? Well we still do.


I once leant “The Midnight Love Feast” by Michel Tournier to the daughter of a friend. Such was her initial enthusiasm about books and novels and me being a writer and all I gave away the book I was reading which was this one. But the title made it a little embarrassing. She gave it back as soon as she could, almost certainly without reading it, which I did not blame her for since this book falls into the category of works that start brilliantly, have a great idea behind them, are by boastworthy writers but actually you can’t be bothered to finish. Salman Rushdie- all his work falls into this category. So does Joyce. Lots of people. But not Italo Calvino or Borges, not them. And lots of other writers too I might add. But those boastworthy writers- I might include Robert Macfarlane here too, they pitch their writing so perfectly that you both want to praise it yet you don’t want to read it- so giving away their book is a perfect solution- you can get to do both. And you can pretend to have read it all, which you can’t if you just give it away (it is always a little soiling to admit you have read a book that was intended from the outset as a present).


Some people- I have one friend in mind- who manages to find very interesting books I often want to read. But I very rarely find books he wants to read. And since he has said no so often I no longer ever try and foist a book on him. But when he comes round to my house he might take a book off the shelf and I feel rather chuffed I have lived up to his exacting standards.


The foisting side of lending books is important. It is very easy to lend books to children and young people: you are standing in as a teacher though in my mind I recall lending books to friends too, where we were like co-researchers. Though it was always a bit more gratifying when they bought the book on your recommendation rather than simply borrowed it. But when people do that some kind of resistance builds up that doesn’t when you lend the book. They feel they have ‘invested’ and they don’t have to be so polite. They own it and like living in your own house you don’t need permission to knock the walls down.


It is said that your ‘imprint’ stays on a book you have read- and I believe that. Some books have a tired knackered feel and you just can’t be bothered with them. A crisp new unread book is like the first day of the holidays- full of promise. Knackered books are only OK when you are backpacking and have limited space and lots of time to fill.


So lending books is like lending your worldview, or the emotional weight of it. As if you are looking over someone’s shoulder as they read the lent book. The reading becomes a sort of three way conversation between you, the author and the person reading the book. That can get in the way sometimes. 


I won’t talk about borrowing books here- that is another subject entirely.


I think when I lend books I am trying to be someone’s teacher and mentor (the difference between these two being that a mentor has to accept more push back) and I realise this is slightly off-putting. My own father, who actually was a teacher, was very oblique about book lending. He’d nod at one on the shelf and say- “You may like this”. Nothing more was needed. But that lesson, like so many, passed me by. I am more like my father’s father who was didactic and pushy about promoting his interests. I think I know best when it comes to reading. I’ve spent so much of my life doing it- nothing to be especially proud of- I’ve watched just as much TV too I expect. But TV is nothing to me- despite a late onset box set habit- I’ve gone years, even a decade without watching it, but I’ve never gone a month without reading. And I am disdainful of TV despite seeing the odd good program; like a true child of Gutenberg I venerate books.


I have lent books that have never been returned. Often it was to people I wanted to be friends with, so not getting the book back (in one case it was two books) also signalled the friendship wasn’t going to happen, not in the way I wanted anyway. You can only ever be a mere acquaintance of someone who repeatedly fails to return books. Is it like going to dinner with people and never inviting them back? For some reason I accept there are some people who are inviters and some who are accepters. I have been both at different stages of my life. I never hold it against someone who eagerly comes to the ranch but never reciprocates. But many people do. Just as I do with book lending…


I lend books to some people who don’t really want them but accept out of politeness. The book usually comes back very quickly. Sometimes I lend a key book to someone (often I give that book now, just to propel it harder and more sincerely) and when they don’t like it I get disappointed. I’ve even put a friendship on hold or the back burner because they disliked my favourite book. Lending a book you really care about used to be for me like offering someone a chance to join my exclusive friendship club and when the book came back with their imprint on top of mine I never usually read that copy again, it had rejection stamped into it, too deep for me, too sad. When I give my favourite books away I still don’t like the rejection when they aren’t read (you always find out) but I don’t hold it against them as I would with a lent book. The act of lending, the contract of returning the book puts a time clock on the activity, intensifies it. Giving a book means you could read it anytime, even though the implication is you’ll read it ASAP. 


‘Neither a borrower or a lender be’ they say, and though I can get the parasitic side of borrowing being less than ideal, I can’t see the problem in lending. Lending books isn’t like usury, there’s no rising rate of interest- or is there? Maybe all lending has some subtle interest rate involved. And interest is the right word. We are asking people to be interested in us, in our ideas, or ideas we want to share or say we have a part share in. We are angling for interest, possibly a show of attention however we cover it up to ourselves by saying inwardly- ‘they’ll really get something out of this’, or ‘this book will help them grow up’.


Books I have lent that have never come back include those I left with people, using their homes as storage facilities. I’ve learned the hard way that this isn’t thought of as me lending them a nice library to read, in reality they think of it as a minor imposition and that after a certain period of time (perhaps linked to the legal notion of losing title after seven years have passed) they start to think of the books as their own. Often I have been reduced to sort of stealing them back one at a time.


Sometimes I am in a mood to give things away. But lending books is different. I have learnt my lesson. Now I never, almost never, lend a book that I cannot get again on amazon or Abe. If it is a rarity I keep it under lock and key. No friendship is worth sacrificing for a mere book.


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