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Neither a Borrower . . . ?

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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 alread

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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 André Prêteur’s Pensées for you. The best thing is to refuse straight away, to say: ‘I have made it a firm rule never to borrow a book. I’m sorry, but I have seen too many friendships destroyed . . .’ Put on your Sydney Carton ‘far-far-better-thing’ expression and gaze into the middle distance. Your look of suffering may become more convincing as you realize that you have now talked yourself out of your regular supply of the works of Minette Walters, which you will have to borrow from another source, but at least you have kept your freedom. Now a word of advice to active borrowers – sidle. Don’t march up to your host’s bookshelves and start making your selection. Admire the furnishings in the room first, comment on the charming view, pat the family dog. It’s a good idea, if possible, to do a recce first, so that you can appear to come across your chosen volume by chance. ‘Ah,’ you say, as if taken by surprise, ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge. Is it any good?’ Never borrow a book from its author. Only a rotter would do such a thing. Go and buy it. It is dangerous to borrow a book which someone else has borrowed from a library. Who is going to pay the fine when it is overdue? As a rough general rule, a work of fiction should be returned to its owner within three weeks. For non-fiction, there is a little more leeway; add a week for a chunky biography. Anything by  Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson should be back with its owner, unsmeared, within a week. I am often asked if it can ever be acceptable to borrow a book and then lend it to a third party. I have known this to be used as a strategy in matchmaking when the object is to introduce the book’s owner to the third party as a possible mate. The third party eventually returns the book directly to its owner and a relationship blossoms through a shared love of, say, Edith Wharton. The danger is, of course, that it all ends in tears and resentment and a dog-eared copy of The House of Mirth. Then you will be blamed. Incidentally, if you are a young lady and you own all 48 volumes of Walter Scott’s Waverley novels and a gentleman of your acquaintance sets about borrowing them, one by one, it might be worth considering the possibility that his intention is to woo you very slowly and methodically. If you like the idea but wish to speed him up, try to get him interested in a novella. For the lender, the greatest concern must be to get his or her book returned in good condition and in good time. One approach, by the writer and hostess Dorothy Nevill, who died in 1913, was to put a sticker inside each volume saying ‘This book was stolen from Lady Dorothy Nevill’. Flann O’Brien once said page 96 was ‘the secret page on which I write my name to catch out borrowers and booksharks’. A bossy lender will record the deed in an imposing ledger or demand a deposit, but will then get a reputation for meanness. You may stick in handsome personalized Ex Libris bookplates, all beautifully engraved and perhaps slyly pretending to be your family’s coat of arms, but your shelves will be stripped bare as soon as word gets round the community of avid and unscrupulous collectors of bookplates. As I have shown earlier, borrowing a book should be an art. Similarly, there is a good bad way and a good way to return the borrowed book. Obviously, it’s bad form to leave jottings in the margin (unless you are incredibly famous) and it’s not a good idea to leave a bookmark revealing the fact that you gave up at page 39. Toffee papers between pages are not recommended. When you return a book you must make it clear that doing so has been inconvenient. If possible, wait for a day when there is deep snow to trudge through or, at the very least, wind and driving rain. As you approach the lender’s house it’s a good idea to limp. Arrive in the early morning or late at night, saying, ‘I wanted to return this wonderful book to you the minute I had finished it.’ Then you can linger and discuss the plot, prose style and characterization. At length. It is also advisable carelessly to leave some kind of present inside the returned book, as a gesture of gratitude. A £5 note would be vulgar and insulting, but an old gas bill (preferably a final demand) would be acceptable, or a detailed credit card statement. Other people’s bills are always fun. Best of all, you could leave an indiscreet letter from a mutual friend. The lender then will be really keen to let you borrow many more volumes, in the hope of receiving further instalments. Like the lender of a fiver, the lender of a book is often unfairly resented simply for wanting to get back what is his – or hers. Lenders are forced to talk their way into other people’s houses to check on the bookshelves – and even the bedside tables – to see if they can track down some much-missed novel. All they get is accusations of snooping. There is one possible answer. When you lend a book, go to the borrower the very next day and ask if you can have use of their bicycle for a week or so. Or their cafetière or perhaps two of their dining-chairs or maybe their au pair. How can they refuse? And when they get itchy and want their property (or their au pair) back, they know what they have to do.

The last payment Oliver Pritchett received from Public Lending Right was £1.33 in 2004.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 33 © Oliver Pritchett 2012


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