Borrowing a book forever is mortal larceny. Of history's many declarations about book theft, there is none I find more engaging than that inscribed in the monastery library of San Pedro in Barcelona, most recently cited by Alberto Manguel in his splendid "A History of Reading" (Viking. 372 pages. $26.95):
"For him that steals, or borrows and returns not, a book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain, crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw at his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not. And when at last he goes to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever."
That should show 'em.
But, of course, it doesn't.
In fairness, much unrequited book borrowing is as almost equally the fault of the lender. I suppose half of the times somebody interesting has turned up wherever I have happened to be living over the last 35 years or so, I have pressed a book upon him, her or it.
I do so in the certainty that the visitor's life will be radically improved by the magical experience of reading this particular volume.
I have no idea of how many of those I have so earnestly pressed upon the worthy recipient have ever been read. Human memory and nature being what they are, such unbidden books tend to lie about and become part of another library, no longer mine.
What is the ethical implication of having an unwanted book pressed upon you? Do you say immediately: "Your taste and wit are so pathetically dim that I could not possibly take this book home even though you insist my life will be vastly the better for it."? That is unlikely to enliven your circle of friendships.
So, as with books you have actually asked to borrow, set the date by which civility demands you return it. But above all do not put the book on a shelf, to let it gather dust forever.
My closest bookish friend tells me that every time he has lent a book it has been like "lending a tooth" - he is immediately, acutely and unceasingly conscious of the gap in his mouth, his bookshelf.
I tend not to be so relentlessly aware of the loss. In fact, when next I want a book I have lent, I usually have forgotten where it has gone and so I go out and buy a new one. Or, if it is one of those very special books I know I will want to press upon other innocents, I buy three copies.
My friend tells me he has gone to a used bookstore and bought back a book he had sold them, in dual acts of dire need.
I have never gone that far, but I have - as he reports he has - gone to friends' houses and "borrowed" back books that I had long ago lent them: "Isn't this interesting! I would love to read it," I have said, lying through my teeth. "Would it be too much to ask to borrow it?" In one case, I had lent it 20 years before.
Enough of this victimization twaddle!
Herewith, I chart a fresh course.
I begin a new life.
I have constructed a lending log. I have vowed a vow to myself that when the proper form has settled down with a few months' usage, I will have it printed and bound in splendid form. It will remain, as it is now, at a prominent point in the bookshelves from which I most likely would lend a book.
Each page contains an open form containing the following:
Title ... Author ...
Date borrowed ...
Promised return ...
Borrower ... Address ... Telephone ...
Return requested ...
Second request ...
At back of this log, there is be an appendix listing books I have borrowed. It too will contain a citation of the book, the date I borrowed it, owner, address, phone, date returned, with space for comments, acerbic or otherwise.
So what is accomplished? Does a log get books back? No. It may strike you as awkward, or offensive, or petty, to call the borrower and nag.
If so, try this, which has worked once for me:
Type a postcard to the borrower: "You don't know who I am now, but I am a person from whom you borrowed a book that you long ago should have returned. Please do. Now."
For maximum effectiveness, the post card should not be sent from your own town. Better mail it to a distant friend to resend.
This is God's work. Delinquent borrowers tend to be habitual abusers. This anonymous card may lead to the returning of hundreds of books, kindling joy all over Earth.
If that fails, move directly. Send a second postcard, this one with your name and number on it:
If [book name]... is not returned by [date]..., this book has been programmed to:
A. Exude an unbearable odor that will permeate all clothing, furniture and living tissue within 100 yards.
B. Explode, damaging most people and property within 100 feet.
C. Release the distressed spirit of the librarian of San Pedro [send along the quote from the start of this column], who will assume active residence in the vicinity.
D. Strike you blind.
E. All of the above.
Begin with A or B. Save the more entertaining terrors for a second or third try.
Start your log today. And return every borrowed book you have on hand.
Pub Date: 12/01/96