Here is a list of my belongings currently out on loan: one pair of denim shorts, an embroidered picnic blanket, a bicycle helmet, a corkscrew, an Ikea drill and its corresponding case of accoutrements, several hundred ballpoint pens, an A.P.C. sundress, and one copy of Toni Morisson’s Sula, lent, impulsively, to a pseudo-boyfriend nearly a decade ago.
Frankly, only the last item in this list keeps me up at night.
Not unlike cilantro, it would seem that lending books divides humanity, cleanly, into two distinct branches. On one side: those who graciously—even eagerly—bestow personal copies of novels and essay collections upon friends, family, inquiring strangers. On the other: those like me, who might be quicker to offer up an appendage than part with treasured reading material. Neither is more morally correct, I believe—though I do think the lenders among us are living their lives in a delusional, reckless state of abandon.
Naturally, there are a number of possible explanations here. For those who maintain an unrelenting grip on their personal libraries, it may be a side effect of blanket, ever-present anxiety. It could be a lack of trust in the lendee, or a fear of publicizing private annotations. But beyond the tactile, obvious reluctance to share, most anti-lenders bear some vaguer, more liquid attachment to the books they’ve accumulated.
As someone with a fixation on re-reading (and re-re-reading), I’d like to think that each of my books holds onto some residue from the spaces in which it was consumed––finger grease that congeals along spines and dust covers like a topographical map. I first read Johnathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude on an overnight rail car traveling from Jaipur to West Bengal, and at the time, it smacked of homesickness. I’d been gone for months–I missed Brooklyn achingly–and here it was, in 509 pages, right in my lap.
Later, I read Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room in the midst of a snowstorm, quietly facing a boy who I’d thought, at the time, I would love gutturally, unabashedly, for the remainder of all eternity. Now, when I page through my copy, it feels pleasantly rinsed in the weird, warm, glow of that kind of reckless affection.
I began White Girls by Hilton Als on the M train after a funeral, and I thought it contained the most gorgeous prose I’d ever had the pleasure of encountering. I don’t mean to imply that if you, too, plowed through my edition of White Girls, you might overwrite whatever film of experience it carries for me, but I do mean to say that my relationship with the paperback is personal. So, I’ll recommend Hilton Als until I’m hoarse, but allowing you access to my copy would be, for me, violating my contract of intimacy with the book, itself. I’d also expect to be plagued by surges of panic until my copy had been safely returned.
The flippant book-lenders of this world are not without logic or rationale. My father, a chronic distributor of literature, often makes the case that allowing a novel to carry with it the sheen of shared experience rather than merely personal association makes for a far richer patina. His copy of The Cider House Rules, one of the heavy hitters in his collection, was offered to me as a gift with the reminder that he’d been of a similar age when he first encountered it. I see the beauty in that—a lineage charted in the passing down of beloved paperbacks.
Metaphors aside, there are also those who trade in the love language of gift-giving—who find the back-and-forth or the constant redistribution of novels to be a central piece of literature’s life cycle. Those who need not claim ownership over a text’s physical form to relish their experience reading it. Among these folks, there are a number who do more than tolerate the practice of book-lending—they seek it out. “Book lending is coy,” a friend, Hannah, admitted to me recently. “It’s flirting for lit-nerds. Someone else looks at your annotations, and wonders about your experience, and doubtlessly thinks about you while reading. You’re the context.” It’s a charming thought that books can bear a resemblance not just to lived experience, but to other people. It’s a discordant, second-degree kind of portraiture.
This comes with hazards, though. On the opposite side of the Richter scale, another friend, Emma—who falls cleanly in the class of the lending-opposed—often less-than-fondly recalls meeting up with an ex on a street corner in the West Village, where he was supposed to return her copy of The Art of Fielding—the absence of which had been, among other things, keeping her up at night.
“I love nothing more than sharing *the idea* of books: recommending them, talking about them, shoving my highlighted lines in the faces of anyone in my presence. Don’t we all want to be the one who knew about the great thing first?” she tells me when I ask her to once again relive her The Art of Fielding trauma for the sake of corroborating my point. “But the buck stops there. Don’t ask me why, but this is where your most trusted friends, life partners, third-date attendees, and the woman who gave birth to you all become thieves and liars. People never return books! And for me, this is not merely a monetary loss, but a personal hit to some perhaps misplaced version of personal archiving.”
So, her unwillingness to share is not undercut by selfishness, but its opposite. She’s committed to preserving her roadmap of paginated peanut-butter stains and orange highlights, and just as fervently, she wants you—you being her exes, her mother, her present tense boyfriends, even me—to plot your own. The sanctity is meant to be personal.
On the receiving end, I’m not immune to the allure of reading someone else’s collected novels. Of clocking their dog ears, their shaky underlines, maybe the stiff, rolling curve of water-damaged pages. But once finished, it’s the returning of said novel that gives me pause (on this point, Emma is correct; we’re all thieves). Afterward, there seems to me an odd hole, like a missing slat, in my library—as if I require physical evidence to substantiate the fact that I’ve read anything at all. And while, yes, it remains true that I could easily buy a copy of Said Novel for myself, the newness feels disingenuous. It lacks the archival detail I value so much. After all, the stacks of accumulated literature that I continue to schlep, impractically, from one New York walk-up to the next, represent, for me, a personal history. A knotted timeline, graphed out in broken spines.
At the start of quarantine, I re-read Speedboat by Renata Adler—a novel I have loved ferociously upon each separate reading. During that long, gray tube of drawling time, the vast majority of my hours were spent lying on the hardwood floor of my bedroom, drinking glass tumblers of whiskey on ice, reading. While living in New York sans all of its usual pleasures, this, for me, was the next best thing. A whole array of beloved characters ramming into one another, speaking out loud, going about the shaky horizon of their own lives, creating a buzz not dissimilar to the sound of tangled voices in a restaurant. Had Speedboat been out on loan, I might’ve missed an essential note in that familiar hum.
Feature Image via Everett Collection.