Every year the registrar of Public Lending Right issues a report on the authors whose books have been most often borrowed from libraries. You can be sure these days that Danielle Steel, Josephine Cox and James Patterson will be up there with the leaders, but it might be more interesting, I think, to discover the name of the author whose books we borrow most often from each other. We need more information about these delicate transactions between friends. I’d also like to know the title of the book which is most often borrowed and never returned, and I’d be disappointed to learn that it was something like A Sensible Guide to Home Plumbing or The Grouter’s Friend.
There are so many mysteries. What is the longest time anyone has held on to a book before returning it? Was it handed down from generation to generation in one family or did it travel the world from friend to thief to cousin? I am also anxious to establish the identity of the person who, in 1974, lent me The Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning, 1783–1903 by L. T. C. Rolt. It is still on my shelves waiting to be claimed.
I can’t answer these questions, but I believe I can give some guidance on etiquette and tactics in this dangerous game in which it can be so easy to make an enemy for life by reducing a neighbour’s set of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet to a trio, or by leaving a chocolate stain on a friend’s treasured copy of John Prescott’s memoirs.
First we need to make a distinction between active borrowing and passive borrowing. You are a passive borrower when someone presses a book into your hands and insists that you really must read it. This may be a friend simply wishing to share a pleasure with you. Even so, rules apply. You can’t hang on to the book for six months then return it saying: ‘Actually, I thought it was rubbish.’ Read quickly and enthuse.
As a passive borrower you may also encounter the power lender. This is someone who likes to control other people’s reading habits and dishes out books to acquaintances as if he were distributing windfall apples to the humble peasantry. He harries you for your response.
‘How are you getting on with Otto Verleiber’s Ruminations?’ he asks.
‘I’ve got volumes two to five for you when you are ready.’
You are now trapped, doomed to Verleiber’s ponderous pondering for months to come, and after that your power lender has already lined up A
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