Friday, March 04, 2011

For Loan Oft Loses both Itself and Friend

Victor Lavalle:

I shut the book. “Can I borrow this?”

She smiled and put her hand on my shoulder—so nice!—and said, “No.”

I almost dropped the book. It bobbled between my hands so she grabbed it from me and slipped it back onto the shelf, right where it had been before.

“I don’t lend my books out,” she said. “I can’t. They always used to come back, if they came back, with stains or bent pages, or even someone’s little ink stains in the margins! I decided, years ago, that I would never let them out of my sight again. I’m sorry.”

Poof, that was it. She left for the kitchen or the front door or the moon. And I stood there for minutes. Actual minutes. Waiting for her to return, laugh, slip the book off the shelf and hand it to me. But she never did. My disappointment burned my face, like shame, but it wasn’t just the rejection. I was also stunned that this person I liked, and respected as a writer, would treat her books this way. As if the objects themselves were, somehow, as valuable as the words and ideas they contained.

My philosophy professor once told us that when asked, she tells friends that she won't loan them anything, but if she can afford to give it without needing it back, she will. I always thought that was a good idea. Too many times, you get annoyed at your friend's inability to return things within a reasonable amount of time, or at their carelessness with the object, and they in turn start to avoid you out of guilt, and maybe even start to resent you over their own nagging conscience. I'd rather spend a few dollars buying another used copy of the book, either for myself or as a gift to them, than to go through all that drama.

To me, though, being lent a book is no meaningless gesture. This shit matters. Someone enjoyed this book and has attempted to forge some sort of connection with me through it, hoping that I'll derive a similar pleasure from it. I'm currently awaiting a book in the mail from a friend who insisted on sharing her personal copy with me as a gift. What greater honor for a bibliophile could there possibly be? As important as books were to me growing up, as vital to my identity as they were, it's impossible for me to not see the act itself as weighted with major significance. Books are repositories of meaning in more ways than one.

Most of the books on your bookshelves might be beautifully designed, and not exactly cheap, but they’re no more divine than a toaster. They are mass-produced items, sold in (occasionally) mass quantities. So what, exactly, makes them so dear?

It’s not the book, but the idea of the book. Some man or woman spent weeks or months or years or a lifetime bleeding on the page! Now you hold that essence in your hands! And other melodramatic nonsense. It all strikes me as a pretty Old Testament way of thinking. Treating a book like a pair of stone tablets. A series of commandments, inviolable, handed down by a deity.

Point taken that it's really the ideas contained in the books that ultimately matter. However, allow me to suggest an alternate reason for valuing the books themselves: for ordinary people like me, these are my artworks. These are what I have throughout my house to make it look interesting. I don't collect things like paintings, antiques, and exquisite furniture, and couldn't really afford to anyway. Three-quarters of what little I do own along those lines was given to me by someone else. Hand-me-down furniture and a few cheap art prints in even cheaper frames are all I have to show anyone who visits... unless you count the huge wrought-iron CD rack (maybe around 700 discs) and the dozen or so bookcases scattered through every room (1,216 books as of this writing). They bring color and a pleasing sense of symmetry to the room (yes, I'm the type of person who meticulously arranges the books on the shelves from tallest on the ends to shortest in the middle). Two of the bookcases themselves are actually beautifully handmade (given as gifts). That other stuff is just a collection of useful objects. This is where all the meaning resides in my house. I'm baffled by people who would look at all that and see merely wasted space or senseless fetishism.