The subtle art of not giving a book

Examining my lifelong reluctance to lend, let alone give, a book to another soul.

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Cover: Jessica Ruscello

Ever since I first held a book I have had a problem with giving it to someone else. Save two people I cannot recall a single soul to whom I have ever lent a book, let alone given one away. I have no idea why and it puzzles me to this day. Over the years I have developed refusing to lend a book into something of an art form. If the person reading this is someone to whom I have refused to lend a book, you have my sincerest apologies but nothing will change.

It is important to mention, for fear of coming off as miserly, that I have on several occasions bought and gifted books to people. I also recommend books to people all the time. But I have never found it in me to lend one of my own books to anyone who does not live under the same roof as I do.

Happily, I am not alone. As a Goodreads librarian for better or worse I end up spending a small bit of time on the book lovers’ social network every month and on one occasion came across an old discussion on the Book buying addicts anonymous group where people were discussing why they have problems lending their books. The whole thread, despite being a decade old, came up with three points that were also echoed by Guardian readers in 2015 and, as recently as last year, pointed out by a bunch of librarians on Electric Literature:

  1. Most people do not value books the same way you do, which leads to their not keeping track of it, lending it further (which is appalling), never reading it (as a result of which they never return it), or quite simply losing it.
  2. People with the habit of annotating on books annotate on borrowed books too, for some weird reason. Further, they may stick things, spill water or something worse, burn or boil or microwave it even. Whatever their approach may be, they often end up ruining the book.
  3. For better or worse, a book is quite a personal object. It’s spine is to be bent only by you, its pages flipped just so, its bookmark used and not laid open face-down, and it is not to be tossed around, used as a coaster or otherwise handled in a way the owner would not handle it themselves. Think of lending your car to someone who habitually shifts gears without using the clutch.

Not all of these apply to me personally, but they do describe the general reasons why I think I am weary of lending my books. Lending a book is as good as giving it. And I am unwilling to give it. Especially once you read a book you tend to develop a bond with it that makes you reluctant to simply give it up; a second similar book is not the same because that is not the one you read. This is a sentiment many a voracious reader will identify with.

The final and arguably most dreadful scenario: explaining why you cannot lend a book.

So when a someone comes up to me requesting to borrow a book some common questions that pop up include, ‘Does this person read books?’, ‘Will this person read this book and return it within a reasonable amount of time (read, three months or less)?’, and ‘Am I willing to lose this book in part (vandalism through annotations) or in full?’ It is almost always the last question that makes it impossible to lend books.

The subtle art in question has to do with first expressing to the person how much you love your books but this is of little concern because if you do read a lot of books it probably shows and you need not—perhaps even should not—mention it explicitly. Once people know you well enough they know not to ask. However, if someone does ask the simplest answer is a ‘No’ but there is a fifty-fifty chance the person will follow up with a befuddled ‘But why?’ which is synonymous with ‘Come on, it’s just a book’ which means all the more that you should probably not lend it to them. It also opens up the final and arguably most dreadful scenario: explaining why you cannot lend a book.

Putting aside the fact that you should not have to answer this question except perhaps to those closest to you, the simplest explanation could be that you have already lent the book elsewhere. In my family, on the rare occasion, we circulate a book or two; since this is usually done between people we know are passionate readers lending is perfectly fine. It also means you can use this as an excuse when someone asks you to lend them your book, regardless of whether you have already circulated the book or not. If you cannot sell the tale of circulating within your family, an equivalent ruse will work just as effectively.

The more precarious choice, best left to the bravest among us, is to risk becoming a nuisance and blurt out a set of rules you wish the borrower to obey. If this does not turn them off they are perhaps safe borrowers after all. If it does, your problem is solved at the risk of you appearing conceited or stuck-up.

Should you find yourself in the unenviable position of having already lent a book, you could try to coax them to return it to you by enquiring about their reading progress. This will either prompt them to return it to you realising they will never read it, or, on a positive note, encourage them to read it.

And finally the subtlest of all: promise to give the book in question sometime in the future and keep quiet about it. If they come back and ask you for it you know they probably do want to read the book; if not your book can stay safe on your shelf.

Good luck for those times your friend or colleague may ask to borrow your book—hopefully these approaches will come in handy. Really though, recognise this essay for what it is and take it with a pinch of sugar; but do not take my book.