Lender's lament

In Shakespeare’s play, ‘Hamlet’, Polonius advises his son Laertes, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend.” Critics have described him as a windbag and a hypocrite, but his words here carry undiluted truth, as every book-lover who has ever lent and lost a book will tell you. One even hears stories of private libraries being built on borrowed books. Anatole France once observed, “Never lend books, for no one ever returns them. The only books I have in my library are books that other folks have lent me.”

I did not quite comprehend how attached I was to my books until the following incident. When I got married, I took as many books as I could to my marital home. Space in our flat was limited, so I left the books in trunks in the balcony and transformed these into seats by covering them with bright bedsheets. One morning, I woke to see the place in utter shambles. The covers had been ripped off and the boxes were open.

Some brass items and bric-a-brac were missing and books lay everywhere. My first thoughts rushed to my books. They were strewn everywhere but were left largely unharmed. A wave of relief washed over me. Realisation dawned on me that more precious to me than my knick-knacks were my books. I understood too at that moment what Charles Lamb had really meant when he asserted, “I love to lose myself in other people’s minds. Books think for me.”

But the course of true love does not run smooth. Book-lovers will guard their books, if not with their lives, with a fierceness akin to it. Here are a few ruses that people I know have employed. One person invariably writes on the fly-leaf, his name and ‘Do not steal. This is my book.’ Another would lend without hesitation, but ask for the book the very next day as he needed it for important work. Yet another stuck a post-it note on the last page, ‘Give it back NOW.’ Of all the ploys, this one takes the cake. I am told that the person would remove the last few pages and store it in a separate file!

You may remark that in this age of Kindle and e-books no one needs the printed volume. The real book-lover will bristle at hearing this, for no gadget can compare with the feel and heavenly smell of the original book. Moreover, it will sit in your cupboard, easily accessible, so you can read it again and again, wholly or in parts.

In medieval times, a book curse was widely used to deter thieves. The wrath of the gods was invoked. On the first page was inscribed, for instance, ‘If anyone take away this book, may falling sickness and fever seize him.’ Such sentiments will be largely ignored today. All one can do is to give the potential poacher directions to the nearest bookshop. Better still would be to assert deadpan that the book cannot be lent because it has been borrowed!

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