Reprint: On Lending Books: Some Fears and Scruples by Nettie Palmer

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It happens to all of us who love books and possess a few. One day we are discussing some matter, and find our selves saying, "By the way there's something about it in that book by X. I'll show it to you." We go over to the right shelf, put our fingers on the right spot (for we could find the book in the dark) and draw out something very like a vacuum. No, there was not exactly a physical gap on the shelves, or we should have noticed our loss before. The book is gone but its neighbours, with perhaps some obscure humanitarian impulse, have closed in making an unbroken row as if all were well. Yet all is not well! That apt allusion in X's book cannot be verified to-day, nor for many days. The next following discomfort will be some "long, long thoughts," as you try to remember who on earth ever borrowed precisely that book. The general result is a feeling that if X's book can go without warning, we live in a shaken and unsure world, not to say universe. Why, we ask, did we ever consent to lend any book at all!

Well, why did any book lover ever lend books that were loved'? Simply because he loved them, and because he was delighted to find some one who seemed eager about them. The impulse is so natural. A garden enthusiast, going round his beds with a friend, nearly always enjoys taking scissors and a basket and giving the friend an armful of flowers. It blesseth him that gives, for plentiful flowers should not die on their stalks. In the same way, books left standing on their shelves gather nothing but unhousewifely dust. If passed from hand to hand they seem to live again, so, when a friend comes glancing along my shelves and suddenly pounces on a book, crying, "Well, I   didn t know A.E. had collected his early prose into a book!"' I am delighted. The one reply is "Please borrow that book for as long is you like. I want it back some day, for reference, and because it completes a small group of Irish books.   But there is no hurry." That is what you feel, very sincerely. Rather than let a book stand uviisited for a long time you would let it be perilously promenaded in your friend's pocket or even worn out a little by being read in trains. For a book is less than a book if it is not being read.

A Fallacy.

Gazing, though, at that new lock on your shelf, you wonder what made you ever imagine that all books, when lent out, would return. Your root idea, as lender, was that all borrowers were book lovers, and all book lovers had book consciences. Yet you knew that book-borrowers are merely human. They do not steal books, they use them, they pass them on temporarily, to other friends, who do the same... Sometimes they love a book outright, simply that. As for your loss, all lenders of books have had the same experience. Charles Lamb complained of it, though he just managed to forgive Coleridge on account of the splendid marginal notes he added to the books he borrowed. If and when the book did return home, these notes would have increased its worth. Other book-lovers have written of their losses, sometimes even attempting a rueful complacency. One said, thanking his borrowers -

   For oh, they've eased me of my Burns  
   And freed me from my Akenside.

Any one who could fun, while in such woe would surely dance at his own funeral.

Returning Borrowed Books.

Most of us have occasions when we rouse ourselves to plan the recovery of our lost treasures. Sometimes it is worth the attempt. The first thing to do, and it is best done in the salutary days near the 1st January, is to purge your own shelves of borrowed books. There is no need to go to extremes in this act, sending back half-read books that you borrowed only last week. The thing is to go through your shelves and make sure that none of your friends' books are mildewing on your shelves when they ought to be mouldering on their own. A borrowed book is a visitor not a resident, not even a "permanent" boarder.  Clear all borrowed books off your conscience then. Next, renew your annually broken vow to keep a list of all the books you lend and the names of the borrowers. This is a repugnant job, but it will save you an excess of brain-cudgelling before the year is out. Next, why not try to reclaim some of the books you lightly cudgelled your brains over last year? Perhaps you can suddenly remember, now, who it was that went away with De Regnier's poems about Versailles tucked under her arm. Perhaps some train of reasoning will make it clear to you what friend's friend will be now in possession of those out of print poems by Vaughn Moody!' But who could possibly have taken that signed novel given you months ago by your friend who wrote it?

Missing Books.

Yet your sifted memory and your borrower's memory may both fail to reinstate such and such a book on your hungry shelf. I once tried something systematic, but don't recommend the experiment to any one else. Missing some books that I both desired and needed, I thought I would send my bookish friends a round-robin, not through the post, but using the power of the Press. It was hard to decide which column of the huge daily would best receive my modest advertisement. I thought of board and lodging, for indeed I had house room to offer my strays. Then the wanted columns beckoned, but they all wanted to buy or sell. The lost and found? But my books were neither. At last I decided on "Missing Friends," the agony column! I simply asked if friends who had borrowed any of my books would return them before I moved away. There was only one response, and that a harrowing one. A rather new acquaintance, to whom I had lent some unimportant and ordinary novels only a week before, returned them all by next post, and of course never borrowed anything again. Meanwhile the lost and necessary books, the rare and irreplaceable ones, remained where they lay, too many of them (as the sad- dest of phrases puts it) "forgotten like a crust behind a trunk."  

Unreturning Books.

There is, of course, one simple way out of it all, One of the New Year resolutions could be to lend no more books on any account. That would attack the trouble at the root. The answer is that it is not worth it. The prospect would be unbearable. Imagine showing a friend round your bookshelves and never dropping into the natural old form of words: "Do please borrow anything that interests you." In saying those words, of course, you know that you are pronouncing the death warrant of a percentage of the books that pass out through your door. Yet you know too, that such books as survive will be living more fully than if you hoarded them undisturbed behind glass doors. The Melbourne Public Library has a Latin epigram in praise of books stamped on every bookcover. Its last word is "peregrinantur": books are meant to wander, to go on pilgrimages. Even if some fall by the wayside and are lost, they will have escaped from oppressive indoors, care that is only a dignified form of neglect. Ask any decent book, with its covers still holding it together, and it will certainly tell you that it wishes, in Nietzsche's phrase, to "live dangerously." Let us all lend our books then, and sometimes even borrow them! 

First published in The Brisbane Courier, 5 February 1927

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on February 3, 2012 6:36 AM.

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