First, let’s cut the crap: you and I both know you still have that book of mine. The sooner we both stop pretending to each other that this is not the case, the better. One time I loaned my friend A. a new copy of Ngũgĩ’s Wizard of the Crow. We were at a reading and signing Ngũgĩ was doing and I was pretty excited about it because he’s an important writer, and also because the cover of the book looked pretty cool. Never underestimate a good cover. You shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but you can and should certainly judge covers themselves. Anyway, as soon as the signing was over, A., who had not had the presence of mind to secure a book of his own, asked me if he could borrow my copy. He said he wanted to read it. What was I gonna say? There was an etiquette to such things. If I had asked him if I could borrow a volume of Stevens from him, he almost certainly would have loaned it to me. There are many positive attributes to the character of A., but I ignore all of those for the moment to focus on his main fault, and yours.
Some months later — never mind how many exactly — A. returned the book to me. M—, it was a misshapen relic, a paper catastrophe! The cover, once bright white and crisp colors, was now ripped, scuffed, and smudged, as if it had tumbled from a turnip truck. And the book itself? Its spine had been broken, set at an awkward angle, its pages vigorously thumbed, dirtied, and abused. I tried to appear stoic to hide my dismay. Gathering up the shards of what once had been, and thanking him for returning my book to me (such as it was), I made my way home, choking back the flood of sadness and rage inside of me.
Later that evening, having composed myself to a degree, I considered: what set off this rush of mad and loathsome feelings? The book itself was still whole, as readable as it had been the moment it emerged from the press. Every word was intact. In fact, A. had done to a book the best thing that can be done to it: he read it, and with energy. But knowing this did not prevent me from feeling that the book, the story’s mere vessel, was now tainted in some fashion I could not quite fathom. The tangle of feelings associated with the lending of books is evidence that one can be generous but also possessive, M—, kindly and apoplectic all at once. Was the cause of my torment the fact that the book had been violated, or the fact that I had not been the agent of its violation?
Over time I would come to admire A.’s cavalier attitude. He may have breached the implied covenant in having treated the book in too rough and familiar a fashion, but at least he returned it. But you? You are disavowing the entire edifice, and that is why I write this to you. Somewhere out there, in California and Kansas, several books that once had their home with me have taken root elsewhere, tucked in the shelves or dropped in the toilets of old friends. Maybe they’ve lost the books and cannot bear to tell me, or worse, they’ve forgotten that the lending ever took place, as a person is forced to take a detour from her intended path and, in the long dark effort to return to the proper road, loses sight of the path back to it, and eventually comes to forget that the road she still travels was ever a detour at all.
And if I am being honest for a moment, M—, I must ask myself: why should I even bother to pine for these lost books when there are so many unloved, unfondled books right here in front of me? In the space of a breath I could reach out and grab any number of books I’d acquired decades ago, determined to read, and have since left each of them to molder in its spot, spine-stiff and pristine. And they have a hundred similarly neglected cousins. With so many orphans at home, why fret over those that have made a home — perhaps a better one — elsewhere? I believe, M—, that what I am feeling is a simple sense of loss, keenly felt. It is a small and pathetic species of loss, meaningless and perhaps even vile in the face of more meaningful forms, but it is a loss nonetheless. And there are no limits to the numbers or varieties of loss that one can feel.
The lending of books, like the lending of anything else, is a sign of neighborliness and friendship. As the realm of the lendable shrinks, we must ask: Will books be borrowed years from now, from the kindest of lenders to those dear borrowers? (For I have been a unrepentant borrower too, in my turn.) And further: will this development be a good thing or a bad thing, or will it be both, as everything else seems to be? M—, when my musty library has been emptied and we no longer want or need our books to be objects seeking space amongst us, there will still be other ways to “lend,” if lending will even be necessary or desirable anymore. If it isn’t, we will have lost some form of community and some tangible sign of friendship, perhaps exchanging it for another, deceptively cleaner kind. But if it persists, perhaps I will be freed of these terrible ugly feelings that I have brought to it unwillingly. When we no longer need each other’s books, will culture travel more freely than it does now, or less, and will we all be able to be as cavalier as dear A. has been? It occurs to me, M—, that perhaps you have refused to return my book out of some as yet unarticulated principle. Time may yet tell.
I still haven’t gotten around to reading Ngũgĩ’s book, although I’ve heard very good things about it, from A. and many others. Perhaps that silent principle of yours has to do with forcing us to confront anew the much larger task of abolishing private property. This would be an excellent path to pursue when next we meet. But in the meantime, M—, I beg you! Withhold the declaration of your beautiful confounded principles if you must, but please, for the love of decency, give me back my damned, miserable, infernal book! If an escape from decay is still impossible, let me at least be the engine of it in my own life.