I love reading books about books, and especially so about book lovers and their books. It’s always reassuring to know that there are bigger bibliomaniacs out there. 😉
Such as the one featured in today’s post, Anatole Broyard – author, longtime book critic, book review editor & essayist for The New York Times.
This is what he feels about lending a book to someone.
by Anatole Broyard
Summer vacation is a time for reading and my friends come to me to borrow books because I have more than most people. In their innocence, they have no idea what I go through in lending a book. They don’t understand that I think of myself as offering them love, truth, beauty, wisdom, and consolation against death. Nor do they suspect that I feel about lending a book the way most fathers feel about their daughters living with a man out of wedlock.
This is not to say that there is no pleasure in lending. Each man has a bit of the evangelist in him, and when a book moves me I want to put it into everyone’s pocket. If such a book were widely read, the world would be a better, lovelier place. But it is not these books that people ask to borrow. How many friends have asked for The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, or Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages?
A less noble motive for lending books is a simple curiosity to see what will happen, a throwback to the child who makes his toys collide. To press a potent book on someone is like giving a dinner guest a strong drink that may cause him to act either foolish or exalted. Some readers even “pass out” after imbibing such a book; they dismiss the experience because they can’t handle it.
Occasionally I’m asked, as if I were a doctor, to prescribe a book for a particular condition – for a recently divorced person or one who is suffering from depression. What kind of book a divorced or depressed person might want to read is a nice question. Should it be comforting or a confirmation of their conviction that things fall apart and the center cannot hold? Why doesn’t anyone ask me to suggest a book for someone who has just fallen in love?
It is irrritating to think that others consider reading a leisurely, holiday activity. They enjoy a fling with books while I’m married to them. In their restless promiscuity, they ask only for new books, while I feel that they have no right to the latest Leonard Michaels until they have gone through Chaucer and Rabelais. They are nostalgic about everything but books.
The though of people reading in the sun, on a beach, tempts me to recommend dark books, written in the shadow of loneliness, despair, and death. Let these revelers feel a chill as they loll on their towels. Let Baudelaire’s “wing of madness” pass over them like a scavenging seagull.
There are times when someone will ask for a particular book, and I’ll try to turn them away from it out of a fear that they won’t do it justice. Helen Vendler said that I.A. Richards, one of the great poetry critics, was always trying to protect his favorites against the misinterpretations of a careless world. Mallarme had a severe attitude toward the same issue. He said that “if a person of ordinary intelligence and insufficient literary preparation happens by accident to open one of my books and pretends to enjoy it, there has been a mistake. Things must be returned to their places.”
Not many of my friends are poor, and thus the question arises. If you truly wish to read this book, if you are serious, why don’t you go out and buy it? Why don’t you make the same offering to literature that you make to other good causes? In Loitering With Intent, Muriel Spark’s heroine observes that otherwise worldly people often act as if books were mysteriously difficult to procure. To the doting book lover, the idea of reading a borrowed book is disgusting, an unclean habit akin to voyeurism.
Occasionally I come across a book so extraordinary that I want to keep the experience to myself. Such a book seems to confer an immense advantage, to make the reader more desirable, witty, or profound than those who have not read it. To lend such a book, to give up such a precious edge in this furiously competitive world, would be foolish. The secrets in a book like this ought to be saved for a rainy day, for an exquisite emergency.
The moment a book is lent, I begin to miss it. According to T.S. Eliot, each new book that is written alters every previous one. In the same way, each absent book alters those that remain on my shelves. The complexion of my library, the delicate gestalt, is spoiled. My mind goes to the gap as one’s tongue goes to a cavity. My security is breached, my balance is tipped, my affections confused, my barricades against chaos diminished. Until the book is returned, I feel like a parent waiting up in the small hours for a teenage son or daughter to come home from the dubious party. In Zuckerman Unbound, Zuckerman’s brother marries a girl as the only way to repossess a book he lent her. Some bibliomaniacs would sooner give away a book than suffer the anxiety of lending it.
The most dangerous part of lending books lies in the returning. At such times, friendships hang by a thread. I look for agony or ecstasy, for tears, transfiguration, trembling hands, a broken voice – but what the borrower usually says is, “I enjoyed it.”
I enjoyed it – as if that were what books were for.
Now I wonder, how much of all that resonates within you even as you were reading it, dear fellow bibliophiles? 😉