Borrowing Privileges?

We’ve all been there. Someone comes round your house, and doesn’t look at your shelves in complete bewilderment, as though you’re some sort of madman, or say something like “well, you seem to focus on European authors, don’t you,” as though it’s a bad thing (yes, that happened to me once). Instead, they look covetously at your books. They looking longingly, with eyes suddenly and mysteriously glowing green.

Some bibliophiles can be antisocial, just like people in the larger population can. I like to think that I’m not that way, so I will be flattered if anyone comments positively on the visible evidences of my madness. And, if you ask, I’ll likely be willing to consider lending a book. Potential borrowers from bibliophiles and bibliomanes should understand: THIS IS A BIG DEAL. When you see my library, you’re not seeing pretension, or some sort of intellectual one-upmanship. You are seeing my personal history, a story of my life and my interests told in paper and glue and ink, which stretches back over the past thirty years. So, if I choose to lend out a book, I do it in the hope that the reader will enjoy the book, first and foremost. But, more importantly, I expect to get it back, and in the condition in which it left my hands.

Not everyone is a fanatic for the condition of their books. I have a word for those people who don’t care about what shape their books are in, and that word is “wrong.” I’ve also been known to use the expression “dangerous nutter.” And if I’ve spotted you as someone of that type, trust me, you’ll never borrow anything off my shelves that I don’t have multiple copies of, and then, you’ll get the rattiest one I own.

You see, for me, condition really does matter. I will reject books for underlining, page folding, or cover damage, unless it’s something really special. Hardcovers without pristine dustjackets are also immeasurably less valuable to me than those which have been lovingly sheathed in Bro-dart. I’m not obsessive. I just like my things to be nice, and I like to keep them that way.

Here are some tips, generally speaking, for caring for your own books, and other people’s books.

  1. Note the condition of the book you’re buying / borrowing / reading. Does it look like new? Is the spine unbroken? Are the corners still sharp? Then you can be pretty damn sure that if you’ve borrowed the book, the owner wants it back like that. If you’re buying it for yourself, compare the original price with the price being asked, and weigh the condition and rarity of the book as part of the deal.
  2. Always use a bookmark. Seriously, get a damn bookmark and use it. It can be an index card, a piece of paper, an envelope or, in a pinch, a real, honest-to-goodness bookmark. But get one, and use it. ON NO ACCOUNT simply turn a book upside down and leave it on a table. That is barbarism, and if I catch you at it, things will go the worse for you.
  3. Good friends don’t lose other people’s books, and they always return them. I have lost a handful of books to other people over the years. By this, I mean that I’ve loaned them out and never seen them again – usually, I never saw the person again either. Some, I have replaced. But I still remember their names. I still remember the copy of The Portable James Joyce loaned to Mary in college, and never seen again. Or the copy of the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy loaned to Kim, likewise never seen again. The biography of Emile Zola which I loaned to Mary Beth also sticks in my memory, especially as I still have the dust jacket… I may never loan again, at this rate.
  4. Do not put your borrowed book in the path of danger. Keep liquids and foodstuffs away from books, unless they are yours and you don’t mind a small ketchup stain or a bit of a beer puddle. Keep domestic animals away from books as well. While many animals are perfectly trustworthy around books, it simply isn’t worth the risk. And no, I don’t want your dog / cat / budgie by way of reparations. I’d like my book back, thanks awfully.
  5. If you do damage a borrowed book, be honest about it, and offer to do your damnedest to replace it, as it was. I wouldn’t have loaned it to you if I didn’t trust you at least a bit, and that means that I also trust you to do the right thing. Of course, you may find it hard to replace my pristine copy of Wodehouse on Wodehouse in the Penguin edition. Maybe I should have thought harder about lending it in the first place…

For a bibliophile or a bibliomane, lending a book is the ultimate sign of trust. Speaking for us all (if you will forgive my having taken the liberty of doing so), please don’t abuse that trust. Find out just what sort of transaction it is that you’re getting into.

And then, perhaps, consider that the public library might be a less emotionally-fraught lender on the whole…

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