Twenty-five years ago, I borrowed Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” from a boyfriend, along with a couple of books by Jack Kerouac and a college lit anthology.
I read them all. At some point, we broke up, quietly disappearing from one another’s lives, never to speak again.
I never returned those books.
Later, from a high school friend that I’d reconnected with after moving back home, I borrowed two short story collections by Woody Allen, a memoir of a young Chinese woman, and probably others that I’ve just assimilated because, as you might have guessed, I never returned those either.
Maybe it’s just me, but there is something about borrowing books from a friend that makes me feel that I can be leisurely about returning them. My friends don’t charge me late fines, and there is no revoking of my library card if I fail to return them on time.
Of course I should have returned them, but all these years later, I only half-regret that. I didn’t borrow them with the intention of keeping them, but time passes and people move on, and sometimes only the books remain.
Among my books, I still have a couple of high school textbooks: another literature anthology – which, incidentally, contains a poem by someone I have in later years gotten to know and work with as a mentor – and also a book on Greek myths, both lost in the mess beneath my bed until it was too late to return them with dignity, fines paid, the books long replaced.
Among my recently borrowed books, I currently have a collection of poetry by Tristan Tzara, two short story collections, a novel, and CDs of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry.
Yes, I intend to give those back. But for all the books I’ve borrowed and kept, I have loaned out three times as many, many of which are either still out, some never to be returned.
Books are meant to be shared. I have never been stingy about loaning my books, even prized volumes that are personally inscribed. I am a collector, but I am not a hoarder, and I would rather a book keep making the rounds than sit on my dusty shelf.
A friend stopped by my house this week in need of poetry. He is a voracious reader and recently consumed a 900-page biography of Darwin after recommending to my husband a multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson, which we promptly ordered.
In addition to borrowing books, I believe in buying books and supporting our local booksellers, like Cellar Door Books, Renaissance Books, Downtowne Books and the Mission Inn Museum store.
I like real books with tangible pages that can tear, dog ear, wrinkle, stain. New or used, purchased, found, loaned or given. I am not one to turn pages gently in the upper right corner, never breaking the spine.
I open my books flat, I write in them – even borrowed books, though those I only write in lightly with pencil – and I fold corners and improvise bookmarks, cram them in my purse to be jammed up against a fat wallet, multiple pens, vials of pills. I am rough with my books. I like them lived in. A pristine book is an unloved book. I love my books, sometimes to death.
One of my favorites activities is looking through friends’ bookshelves, always attuned to the evidence of lives lived in the company of books: smears of chocolate, coffee, ketchup, grease; notes in the margin, or scrawled across the page, covers detached and taped back on.
I prefer to acquire used books over buying new for that reason; the cost savings is just a bonus. I love knowing that the book had a secret life before it came into my own – that somebody loved it, then set it free. But nothing beats a free book, a book freely given or loaned. Loaning a book to someone is like belonging to an exclusive club, one where to become a member requires trust, faith, and a willingness to let things go.
That is one reason I love the new Little Free Library trend. We trust, lend and sometimes let it go. To find one near you, all you need to do is visit littlefreelibrary.org and click on the “map” tab, then select “near me.”
According to this map, there are nine near me, including at a favorite sandwich shop, The Back Street, and up on Box Springs Mountain near the big C. There is also one in front of the Women’s Club on Brockton, and another at a private residence on Falkirk and one at a private residence on Victoria Avenue at Madison.
No, you can’t reserve a book. No, there isn’t a huge selection. But the fact that so many people value books in this way is heartening and I am reminded of all that communities do for each other. This is just one way for neighbors and strangers to connect, even if they never in fact meet. Books shared are the best kind of books around.
That Milan Kundera book? Loaned to another friend, mom to one of my oldest son’s elementary school classmates. I haven’t spoken to her in years. It is doubtful that I will ever get it back.
And that’s just the way it ought to be.