Neither A Borrower Nor A Lender Be

3 Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (Russian painter, 1868-1945)   Reading in the Garden 1915Polonius, Chief Counselor to Shakespeare’s Claudius, tends to get a very bad press.  Apart from the fact that he has clearly chosen the wrong side in Hamlet v the Rest of the World, he is also universally condemned for being a pedant.  If there was a contest for the fictional character least likely to be invited to a party, you could be fairly certain he would make the top ten.  And yet, every time I see the play I reach the point where he is giving advice to his student son and I have to ask myself why he is so disliked.  Is it, perhaps, because we don’t like being asked, via Laertes, to examine our own short-comings?  Because you have to admit that much of what he has to say makes very good sense.

Who, for example, would argue with his precepts on friendship?

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;

And I definitely need to listen to what he has to say on the subject of buying clothes.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not express’d in fancy; rich not gaudy;

For the apparel oft proclaims the man,

Let me tell you, Jolyon Bear would be in the audience cheering him on.

You may not think, however, that he has any words of wisdom for the readers amongst his audience.  Don’t you believe it. Heed both his and my advice and take these words to heart.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

We probably all know the perils of lending books.  To be fair, some people do return them, but over the years certain dire experiences, including the loss of a signed copy of the first of the Discworld novels, has taught me that I should never lend out a book.  Don’t get me wrong, I frequently pass on books which I have enjoyed to other people, but these days I consider them a gift and make it clear that I have no expectation of ever seeing them again.  If it is a book that I value and want to be able to return to at some point in the future I will recommend that the other reader gets hold of their copy or if we are on those sorts of terms I will buy them a copy as a present, but I hang on to my own like grim death.

During these past few months, however, when my reading time has been at a premium, I have begun to realise that borrowing books is every bit as much a peril to be avoided as loaning them out.  I don’t think I’ve made a habit over the years of asking to borrow someone else’s books.  I’m rather too fond of having an excuse to buy my own.  But what I’ve become aware of recently is just how eager other people seem to be to force their own favourite books onto me.  Truly, I have piles of the darn things all over the place.

This has been bad enough if it has been a book that I actually wanted to read.  It’s frustrating as it is not to be able to get round to authors whose works I have normally automatically read as soon as they appeared without other people reinforcing what I’m missing.  The real problem, however, lies with those works I have absolutely no desire to read in the first place.  Before I would have skim read them and then passed them back with a ‘thank you, perhaps not quite for me, but very interesting’, knowing that I had enough knowledge of the book to be able to get away with my deception.  Now that isn’t possible and yet still the books mount up.  How do you say ‘no’ to someone who thinks that they are doing you the greatest favour in the world and who just isn’t going to understand when you can’t see your way to prioritising their book over and above all those that you have actually selected for yourself?  It’s like telling someone that their beloved child is not welcome in your house.  In fact it is probably more difficult because, if said child has previously swung your cat round the living room by its tail or de-feathered a pillow in your bedroom, Mom or Dad presumably already has a fairly good idea that a return visit by their offspring isn’t going to be particularly welcome.  Not having enjoyed the last book they offered doesn’t seem to cut quite the same ice.

And, as Polonius knows, friendships can falter over this.  If you suggest that you might return the book unread and perhaps borrow it again at a more opportune moment, you are inevitably encouraged to keep it because they are sure you will get round to it soon. This is, of course, accompanied by a look that implies not only are you slighting their book, but also them, their taste in reading and probably their right to exist on this earth at all.

Does anyone have an answer to this, because saying “no thank you” doesn’t seem to work?  A friend of mine whose mother-in-law was constantly and pointedly extolling the virtues of an annual spring clean eventually had a wall plaque made with Mole’s immortal words

Hang spring-cleaning

written on it and placed it where it was the first thing her adversary was likely to see as she came through the front door.  Perhaps I should do something similar with Polonius’s sentiments.

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19 thoughts on “Neither A Borrower Nor A Lender Be

  1. I learned many years ago never to lend out books – I lost so many good ones I had to replace later. As for borrowing – fortunately, I have such eclectic reading tastes that most people don’t even try. Heavens, I have trouble getting through a book I’ve borrowed *myself* from the library!! 🙂

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who borrows books from the library and then wonders why I thought it was something I wanted to read in the first place. Then, of course, there is the worry that the librarian will want to know what it was like and if I enjoyed it!

  2. I try not to collect books any more so I often pass them on when I am done. Some I keep because I really believe I may pick them up again — but fewer and fewer fall in this category.
    I have been on the other end though — given books by people who know me as “a reader.” I often say no when it comes up — pleading that I am truly a slow reader, that I already have so many to read before theirs, that it isn’t likely I will get to it– but I will contact them if things change. I’ve found it’s better to deflect first rather than be burdened with the book and someone waiting your response to it.

  3. I have a couple of friends who are tried and trusted on the book returning front and I’m more than happy to lend them anything. As for the reverse, because I’ve been associated with the book trade in one way or another for years I’m sent lots of proofs so have only to regretfully indicate the extensive unread piles. So far it’s worked.

  4. I get very nervous lending out books. I too have learned the hard way. I happily pass on books I have enjoyed (or not so much) and don’t want to re-read – but lots of the books in my house are part of collections and thus very dear friends.

    1. It’s those that are parts of sets that are really difficult, I think. Especially as you often lend out the first one and then find that it was published so long ago it’s hard to get a replacement.

  5. I had a colleague lend me a book a while back after I expressly told her not to. It was the third in a series (that I did want to read), and I know I’d have trouble getting the other books, so I was choosing not to start. She insisted that it would stand alone, and then just left it on my desk when I wasn’t there with a note saying I didn’t need to hurry to return it. So I waited a couple of months and left it on her desk when she was out with a note saying thanks, but I wasn’t going to get to it until I could find a more complete set.

    Weird how a gesture that’s intended to be nice can end up seeming like the opposite.

    1. And somehow almost threatening. There is one friend I almost quake when I visit her house because I know there will be something that she will insist I bring home.

  6. I am with you on not loaning books. I have lost so many – two that I still mourn & have not been able to replace. For a new book club at work, I checked a copy out of the library for someone who couldn’t get to the library, rather than lend her mine (though of course that could be risky too). I have also met the insistent loaners, and I have five books sitting here unread right now. No matter what I said, the loaners wouldn’t stop until I took the books. I still have zero interest in reading them but haven’t figured out how to return them yet.

  7. I’m with you on Polonius. His words are wise but they belong to a personality that makes one roll their eyes. I do not lend books, learned that lesson like so many do. And thank goodness no on tries to lend me books. I’ve pretty much managed to frighten all my friends to the point where they would never consider it. They will make a suggestion, but never offer the book, and even the suggestion comes with a disclaimer: I know you have lots to read and are really busy but you might like to read XYZ sometime.

    1. I have a friend who keeps a notebook on her at all times fro recommendations, Stefanie. I once asked her how many she’d followed up on. She reckoned ten percent at the outside.

  8. It’s my mum who is the issue with book donations. she means it as an act of love I know but her taste in books is absolutely nothing like mine. No matter how graciously I decline it still ends up on my shelf. I wish I could just let it gather dust and then quietly donate it to a charity shop but she keeps asking me what I thought of the book….

    1. Now that is a thorny one. Fortunately, my mom was very ill for sometime and it was my duty to bring her library books during this period. I was so lousy at choosing things she would like I think she learned the hard way that where reading was concerned we were very different animals.

  9. Heh, Polonius. Yes, he does give good advice in that scene. But look at his behaviour during the rest of the play (not that he deserves being stabbed, of course)!

    Like everyone else, I’ve learnt to be careful about lending books; I haven’t lost many but I am totally prissy about the state of my books and I don’t appreciate them being returned with broken spines, torn dust-jackets, evidence of a swim in the bath and even dirty and dog-eared pages. Fortunately, moving country does reduce that difficulty somewhat.

    As for having books pressed upon me, I too avoid this as much as possible. However, on one occasion when I simply could not get out of it and I didn’t like the book, I just read the first two chapters and the last one, and then was vaguely pleasant about it, yes, A Lie, but I am quite an evil person really. I’m keen to read about any non-evil strategies though.

    1. That’s a strategy that I’ve used in the past as well, Helen. It’s interesting what you say about books coming back damaged. One of the things I hate most about reading other people’s books is the worry that I might do some damage. It takes away a lot of the pleasure.

  10. One of my best friends–the main reason I live in this cold, northern town–has taken, in the last seven years (since I started blogging) to pushing books on me saying “this one was a good way to kill a couple of hours” or something like that. I finally sat down with her and tried to explain that I don’t read to kill time, but I don’t think she really understood. She teaches math; she’s not a literature person. The talk did slow the torrent of books, though.

  11. So many good points you raise in this post. I am currently suffering some guilt over “sharing” (I hope not foisting!) a book I love with a fellow bibliophile. Thank goodness he read it, but I won’t do it again. Why should he read what I want him to read? How very vain of me! Even though I have done the same for him, and we have had good discussions over books we’ve shared…

    I am keeping guard over what I lend, what I accept in lending, and over agreeing too much in any situation. It’s too easy for me to be compliant, and consequently resentful. Which isn’t good for anybody.

    Your post gives much for me to chew on.

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