When books go walkabout It’s all very well for Shakespeare to go on about being neither a borrower nor a lender…

It hurts when borrowed books are not returned. Never mind that you’ve already read it and are likely not to ever read it again for the simple reason that there are so many books waiting to be read — and no amount of gratitude would do for that.

When books take flight.
When books take flight.

Never mind also that the books are generally only always gathering dust and are also feeling pretty lonely up there, until one fine day, maybe once in three years, comes the Great Shakedown and you wipe the shelves clean of all they carry, motes and mites and all manner of minuscule items, dust down the books and return them to their shelves, rearranged. That’s what happens in my personal library.

For the longest time I thought what kind of person would borrow a book and not return it? I mean, steel dabbas are okay, pens too. Gold earrings on the odd occasion. But books? Now, that’s unforgivable.

Then I remembered an anecdote my mother-in-law had shared. When my husband and his sister were really, really little, they once got so mad with their mother they said to each other, “Chal, bhaag jaatey hain” (Come, let’s run away). They packed some things in a jhola and marched out of the house. Their aunt ran to their mother in a panic: “Look, see what they’re doing! Where are they going? Stop them!” Their mother cackled and said, “How far will they go? When the mice dance in their tummies, they will be back.”

Sure enough, they were back, sooner than the mice began to dance.

It seemed like a good metaphor for borrowed books. Where would they go? How far would they travel? Sooner or later they would have to return, when the mice — guilty conscience, flash of memory, clearing day, whatever — began to dance. That assuaged some hurt feelings over the absence of books. It’s another matter that more books are likely missing from my shelves than I could imagine. The point is, for a while this helped. But the uncomfortable feeling returned.

That’s when I was spurred to action. Whenever I visited somebody, I’d make it a point to scour their bookshelves and when I spotted something familiar, I’d pounce on it with an “Ah! That’s mine! I’m taking it back!” as my friend — friend? FRIEND? — looked on with a puzzled (really?), anxious (tell me another), amused (the worst!), outraged (yeah!), curious (go figure) look on her face. Like she never knew the book was with her. Like she had no idea the book was mine. Like — and this is the killer — it’s mine, not yours…

But seriously, why do people borrow books and not return them? A peek into a discussion on Quora threw up some really interesting, esoteric answers. One sensibly reasoned argument was: “They are most likely not to return books if they have not read them. With me personally this is usually the case; any book that I’ve borrowed and haven’t read will likely remain on my book shelf until I read it. And that point may be postponed indefinitely in the future.” Fair enough.

One solution for this is: “I always gift books to my friends because I don’t like to lend my books, I know I will never get them back.” That’s an idea. Also, as someone else points out, people who borrow think the person who is lending is done with the book and doesn’t want or need it back. Ok… maybe. Although “laziness and accountability” are the more guilty parties.

Then the Quora discussion steps up several notches into some pretty weird space. Here it is, verbatim:

  • “Lend” just removes “owe”. And, I’ve rarely known the culture of book lending to make one into a river to the people. Suck it up, and take part in the purest incarnation of Karma.
  • If it is a very good book, that book could begin consuming not just your time or sleep but also your soul; and how can you return something that contains your soul?
  • There is an ancient proverb in Sanskrit — “Pustakam, bharya, vittam — para hastam, (into others hands) gatam, (gone) gatam (gone)”

What do you think? It’s a pretty shattering dilemma, right? As someone on another forum says, “If that’s not one of the seven deadly sins, it definitely should be.” Ha!

Still, no amount of ha-ing and ho-ing is going to bring back books gone walkabout. So I reckoned, there had to be another way. And that was to simply let them go. Release them. Set them free. The rationale was that someone somewhere was maybe reading the book and enjoying it as much as I did. That was reason enough.

Indeed, that’s the reason for the book’s existence in the first place, isn’t it? To be read. For ideas to be shared. The world created within the pages to be entered into by the reader. The experiences reimagined. The universe expanded.

The Guardian carried a story about George Washington having borrowed a book from the New York Society Library back in 1789, and there being no record of his having returned it. The book was The Law of Nations by Emer de Vattel. Overdue fines totalled about $300,000 in 2010 when the article was published! And the reason the story was written was that when the “staff at Mount Vernon, Washington’s former home in Virginia, learned of the situation, they got in touch with the library offering to replace the book with another copy of the same edition”. And they did — 221 years later, and no fine!

My friend Pradipti sort of emulated this when she borrowed my This Divided Land: Stories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramanian, and someone whacked it from her desk when she wasn’t looking, and she replaced it with another copy and many apologies. Now, that’s a true book-lover for you. She understands the pain. She understands why, despite all the rationalising and philosophising, I’m still mourning the missing in action of A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman. It’s a signed copy. Does anybody have it?

The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.

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