Kinship of the Bookish Sort: On the Pleasures of Literary Lending

The list of people to whom I will entrust my favourite books is rather short. My mother, who has been known to read borrowed books with gloves on “so I don’t get fingerprints on the cover, of course,” is at the top of the list. Following this gold standard of neurotic book borrowing runs the gamut of friends and family members who have a demonstrated track record for returning my beloved books in a timely fashion, intact, without cracking the spine or dog-earing the pages.

It is, predictably, a very short list.

Each time I lend out a particular favourite, it is with a frisson of fear. Will the person take proper care of it? Are they the civilized sort with the good sense to use a bookmark? Is there a non-zero chance that they will be so bold as to take this book with them into the bath? How likely is it that food or drink will consumed in the vicinity of the crisp, pristine pages? I realize these thoughts make me a fusspot of the highest order, and while I firmly defend others’ right to highlight, write in, bend, fold and generally destroy their own books, I cannot abide even the thought of keeping a library full of such abuse. (At this point, I am too old to change my ways; I am what I am.)

But foremost in my mind, and more important than any of these thousand other trivial worries, is the nagging question: Will they love the book as I do?

I’ve come to think of book lending as a bit of an art form, and, as any successful artist is only too quick to tell you, you have to know your audience. After years of experience, I know better than to press my favourite books to the hands of my best friend. We have plenty in common, and goodness knows she puts up with my odd proclivities like a champ, but our reading preferences are too dissimilar to make literary lending anything but a lesson in disappointment. My rhapsodizing over a droll satirical novel to a woman whose reading life is dominated by true crime accounts of people with horrific childhoods, well … it goes about exactly as well as you’d think it might. Which is to say not at all.

On the other hand, I positively adore lending books to my aunt, whose literary tastes echo mine. In any given half dozen books that I bring her, she unerringly manages to express appreciation for my secret favourites. It’s a thrill in and of itself. We don’t need to have an impromptu book club-style discussion about it. We don’t need to wax poetic on the characters or the setting, or the finer plot points. But there is something special there: that cliché warm and fuzzy feeling. All those small stresses—about the proper care and feeding of my books, about a whether each title will be appreciated—they all melt away. Sharing becomes a joy.

And therein lies the gratification of lending books. In my mushy, poetic moments, I think that sharing my favourite books can be like sharing bits and pieces of my soul. Those books can express preferences and predilections, dreams and desires much better than I ever could myself. Finding someone who likes the same books I do is like discovering a special type of kinship. It’s a recognition and an affirmation.

“Oh. You like it, too. It’s not just me.”

It’s lovely.


PortraitThis post was inspired by and is dedicated to my wonderful Aunt Carol, who, I’m reliably informed, reads this blog. Enjoy the latest batch of books!


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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.