Book Borrowing and Book Lending
Why I Don’t Loan Books Anymore, and Why I Won’t Borrow Your Book
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan doth oft lose both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Although Shakespeare is talking about borrowing and lending money here, I think we can apply this to borrowing and lending books. The only place a person should borrow books from is the library, and the only place that should be lending books is the library. I have been thinking about the challenge of friendly book lending and book borrowing quite a bit lately. There are several reasons that I disagree with the practice.
I Don’t Want to Borrow Your Book — I Want My Own Copy
I do not like to borrow other people’s books. I typically don’t even want to borrow books from the library lately. I like to dog-ear my books, write in them, underline things, highlight things, and write in the margins. One of the most enjoyable parts of reading a book, for me, is carrying out a dialogue with the writer. Sometimes I feel like I can do that by jotting down notes in the margins.
If you loan me your book, I cannot get immersed in the reading experience the way I normally would. I have to be respectful of the book as someone else’s property. I have to revert to a notepad and taking notes for things I want to remember and recording the dialogue I would have with the writer. This takes far more time and I have found that it disengages me from what I am reading.
I also like to keep a record of the books that I read. I do this in two ways. One allows me to track the borrowed books I have read, but the other does not. I always write down the name and author of my most recent book and the date that I read it in my — I don’t know what to call the notebooks that I keep — journal? Notebook? Reading diary? None of those quite fits, but I keep notebooks where I jot down random thoughts, notes from things I am reading, quotes to remember, to do lists, ideas for things to write, questions I have about the world. It is not exactly orderly and organized. The only thing that organizes it is the date that helps me track when I had the thoughts, etc.
The second way I track what I have read is more difficult with borrowed books. I like to have the books that I have read sitting on my bookshelf for future reference. I open to the title page and record my name, the date that I finished the book, and the city or cities where I read it. This has produced some fun results in the past. I have volumes that were read in Tokyo, Japan; Okinawa/Naha, Japan; Amsterdam; Liege; Washington, DC; etc. Sometimes books have been read in multiple cities. If I re-read the book, I record the new date and location below it. Sometimes I look at this, and I can better understand why I took something different away on a re-read. I have only been doing this for a few years, but now it is something that I feel that I must do when I am reading. It makes my books more than just books — they become a chronicle of travels with reading and while reading.
If I Borrow Your Book, I Put Our Relationship at Risk
If I agree to borrow a book from you, I am doing so with the knowledge that the action could put our friendship or relationship at risk. I have borrowed books from people before, and they inevitably want to know how I felt about the book. I prefer book gifts or book recommendations. Loaning a book puts a timeline on when I have to read it. I can’t just toss it on one of my to-be-read piles (and there are MANY to-be-read piles and many books in those piles at any given time) and read it when the mood strikes me. Now, I have to read that book in a timely manner so I can return it to the owner. This means I might not read it at an appropriate time when I am mentally ready for a book of that type.
Beyond the time-limit challenge, the person lending the book is inevitably going to want to discuss the book. The lender is typically eager to see that you took away the same things from the book and that you loved it as much as they did. Herein lies one of the biggest challenges in reading borrowed books. What if I don’t like it as much as the lender? What if I don’t like it at all? Now I am obligated to tell the lender how I feel about the book and why. The lender has opened up their heart and made themselves vulnerable to me through the very act of loaning a book that they enjoyed. They have revealed something about themselves through that act that could potentially alter our relationship. They might be hurt when I don’t feel the same way that they do about the book. It could cause both of us to realize that we are not really friends after all. The “How could I be friends with a person who loves that book” problem emerges. Feelings get hurt, and friendships are destroyed. All because of an act that was intended as a simple act of kindness. Loaning books is not an act of kindness after all; it is a challenge and a threat. It is like the first shots fired in a war.
Borrowing Your Book Makes Connections More Difficult
I was a college professor before I went into academic recovery. (For those who are not aware, academic recovery is like other 12-step programs. It takes time and quite a bit of effort to recover from the harm that the academic addiction causes — perhaps I need to write on that.). One of the most important things about reading in the academic world has remained an important aspect of reading to me as a non-academic: making connections between the different things that you read. I tried to teach my students to do this throughout my academic career. The best academic writing and the best demonstration that you are “getting it” is by making connections to other things that you have read. This is also one of the best ways to remember what you have read and internalize it.
This goes beyond making connections to other books in the same genre and the same field. I have found new ideas and interesting connections when comparing and reading books on policing, books on prisons, books on social interactions, books on dramaturgy, books on semiotics, literary fiction of Jane Austen, Tolstoy’s books, books on insects/entomology, books on physics and the universe, and self-help volumes. Books that you don’t think will connect do when you give them the opportunity. This is difficult to do when you can’t just go and pull that volume off of the shelf and skim through it for the passage that you are looking for.
I actually believe this is one of the places where most academics today are going wrong. They read extensively in their own narrow field, but they fail to explore beyond that field. They are not opening their minds to important new neural connections that could help instigate explorations into new territory in the field. Instead we make incremental progress (if we make progress at all) barely examining new territory and just parroting what researchers have had to say before us. This was the case in my field and continues to be. It is just difficult to make the important connections if you don’t have a copy of the book to refer back to.
Why I Won’t Loan You My Book — It Is Like Loaning a Piece of My Soul
I do not like to loan books. It is like loaning someone a piece of who you are — a piece of your soul. If I like a book enough to loan it to someone else with the “I want it back” at the end, that means opening up about a part of me. I am sharing something about myself that I only share with my books. I am letting you in.
I have been burned by people that I have let in so many times in my life. I just don’t want to open myself to that level of hurt anymore. Loaning you a book that I really enjoyed and cherished is opening the door to hurt feelings and a destroyed friendship. You could innocently come back to me and say you didn’t enjoy it and then expound on the many reasons that you didn’t like the book. Those reasons end up being aspects of the book that I really enjoyed or things I connected with because of my positionality. This is going to harm our friendship.
By loaning a book I am trusting you. I am sharing an inner secret with you. I am trusting you to respect that I am opening up to you and revealing pieces of me. When you violate that trust, it is hard to build back. I would argue that this type of trust violation is harder to repair than almost any other form. Books are treasures to me. If I share my treasures with you and let you in to the secrets of the books I love and why I love them, I am trusting you with intimate knowledge about me. Don’t break that trust. See — just easier and safer not to loan the book in the first place.
Why I Don’t Loan Books — You Might Not Give It Back
I love my books. If my house were on fire, there are three things I would run into the fire to save: my children, my dog, and my books. I can trust my children to get out on their own at their ages (one is technically not a child anymore), and my dog follows me everywhere, so that is an easy rescue. My books, however, cannot get out on their own. I cannot imagine losing my books. I have carefully selected each one of them to be a part of my collection. I have first-editions, signed books, rare and collectible books, and normal books that might not have any value to others but that are priceless to me. I do not want to lose them.
If I loan you a book, there is a chance that you will never return the book. I have loaned books to co-workers before, to students, to friends. I can’t tell you the number of books that have walked out of my office or my house to never return again. Those books are hard to replace. I also lose my history of when and where I read the book. Sometimes these books are out of print, so replacing them becomes not just difficult, but expensive.
Please, if someone loans you a book RETURN IT! Try not to use it as a coaster for your drinks. Try not to spill your coffee in it. Try not to douse it in beer while reading at the bar. Respect the property of the person who loaned it to you and recognize that it might be a treasured possession. There have been times in my life where I have had to make a choice between a good meal and buying books. Every. Single. Time. I bought the books and lived on peanut butter and jelly, Ramen noodles, and macaroni and cheese until the next paycheck came in. Books are valuable to me. If I loan it to you, I am displaying many layers of trust. Don’t break that trust by keeping the book.
How I Feel When You Don’t Like the Book I Let You Borrow
There are two types of book borrowing transactions that I have experienced. The first is the less dangerous form: you see a book on the shelf in my office (not likely that you will see a book on the shelf in my house as I do not invite many people into that sacred space) and you ask to borrow it. I agree and hand you the book. I might not have a strong feeling about this book, and you wanted to read it. You made a conscious decision to borrow the book. The connection between the act of loaning you the book and the emotional connection of allowing you to borrow the book is not as strong as in the second form.
The second type of book borrowing is far more dangerous: I really love a book, and I think you will love it too, so I approach you and offer to let you borrow it. This is usually accompanied by a lengthy explanation of why I think you will love the book, my feelings about the book, and many attempts at describing the book to you without including spoilers. In this form of book lending I am making myself vulnerable to you. I am approaching you with book in hand to let you in on an aspect of myself. If this is a book that I personally connected with, I am risking you not liking the book. If you come back after reading the book and go into a lengthy exposition of how awful it was or on why you couldn’t even finish it, my feelings are likely to be hurt.
The other risk is that I recommend a book because I think that you will love it. This is followed by a “here, I have a copy you can borrow” statement and an excited exchange of the book. There is another danger in this transaction. I am revealing things about how I see you as a person. I am revealing the lens through which I see you — this can be dangerous. In this exchange, I am sharing that I think you will love this book because of something about you instead of something about me. Perhaps I think you will like it because of something that I think we have in common. What if I have been reading you completely wrong? I am demonstrating things that I think are characteristic of you as a person in the act of loaning this book. I might hurt your feelings through the very act of lending the book. Again, I am putting our friendship or our relationship at risk.
The Alternative to Lending and Borrowing Books
There is an alternative to lending your books or borrowing books from others. Actually, there are multiple alternatives. You can make a recommendation and let the person go purchase the book on their own. Here you have not created an obligation to read if the person really does not want to read the book. You have simply made a recommendation. There is still room for damage to the friendship or relationship if you later discover that they did not take your recommendation, but the damage is not as bad as when you loan the book and they do not like it. You also have not constrained the book borrower to reading the book in a short time frame in order to return it.
You can also buy the person a copy of the book. I have done this before. It is not unusual for friends and family to get books as gifts at various times throughout the year. My family and friends also know that I love to receive books as gifts. One of my favorite Christmas gifts that I have ever received came from my sister. She bought me a boxed set of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time volumes translated into English. I have made it through the first two so far. I really enjoyed this gift, and it demonstrated a connection that the two of us share — our love for books, but also our love for a certain type of literature. I love giving people books. I get the joy of them opening the present, and then the joy of watching them read the book later on or talking to me about what they thought of the book.
Finally, you can simply talk about the books that you are reading with friends, family, and coworkers without making recommendations at all. You can let them pick and choose from these discussions the books that they want to read without creating any form of obligation. You can open the door to people asking more questions about a book or asking for recommendations without putting your heart out there on a silver platter for them to throw on the ground and stomp all over. This allows you to share your mutual love of books without obligating either party to a literary transaction that will hurt the relationship.
Borrowing and lending books is a dangerous process. I prefer to take Shakespeare’s advice and avoid the transaction altogether. It is your decision if you want to engage in the book borrowing and lending exchange, but I would caution you against it. Think about the potential impact on your relationships. We can share our love of books without actually sharing the books themselves.