Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be

Something you often hear cited against the use of an e-reader is that it isn’t possible to share the books you purchase with other readers.  Well, I have to say that in general this isn’t a problem as far as I’m concerned because my maxim, arrived at through long and hard experience, is that as far as books go, Polonius got it right – neither a borrower nor a lender be.

I was reminded of this by Michael Dirda’s article this week on essential vacation reading, in which he lists ten general categories of books that you should pack as you prepare for your summer break.  The first in the list is a substantial anthology of classic short stories.  Now I know just what I would want to take to fulfil this requirement, a compendium of both volumes of the collection of stories by women that Hermione Lee edited as The Secret Self.  However, not only do I no longer possess Vol 2, I haven’t even read it because almost as soon as I bought it a friend spotted it on my shelves and borrowed it to save her searching for a copy of her own.  That was at least twelve years ago and I have never seen the book again.  (Nor for the past five years the friend, but that’s another story.)  Lending books you want to keep, either to read again, to have to hand for reference or just to have around as a well-loved companion, is always a risky business.  I am happy to give away books I’m not going to need again.  I have to if I don’t want to be buried alive.  But lending, I’m afraid, is another matter entirely.

However, borrowing is just as problematic.  At least, that sort of borrowing that comes about because a fellow reader insists that you simply must read this book and thrusts it into your hands before you can get them into your pocket and make holding said book completely impossible.  I have a whole shelf of these volumes which I daren’t give back because I would then have to admit that I haven’t read them and thus insult the reading taste of whichever friend it was that lent it to me in the first place.  Presumably those friends now see me in the same light as I see the person who borrowed my short stories, but the difference is that I didn’t ask to borrow the book in the first place!

So, where books are concerned, I say, like Polonius, with whom I don’t often find myself in agreement, neither a borrower nor a lender be.  I tell you, it can only lead to trouble.

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Is it Summer Yet?

As well as purchasing as many of Michael Dirda’s collections as I can find, I’ve also started to follow his articles in The Washington Post and his latest column in Dirda’s Reading Room is entitled the Books of Summer.  He begins by suggesting that for him summer is dated from the day after Memorial Day.  ‘Now’, he says, ‘it’s time to think about slowing down, relaxing…and planning our vacations and summer reading.’

I have to say that for me summer starts rather later.  I have always dated it from the Friday evening in July when the Proms begin.  I have this blissful image in my mind of long summer evenings with the late sun pouring through the open French windows and wonderful music played by the world’s greatest orchestra drifting out into a honeysuckle scented garden.

There are several things wrong with this vision.  Firstly, if I’m not going to start my summer until the middle of July, it does make it a very short season, especially as there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that summer ends on the last night of the Proms.  Secondly, at least in the last several years, there have been very few evenings when it’s been warm enough to sit with the French Windows open.  And, as they face East, there’s not much likelihood of evening sun anyway.  The fantasy is always so much better than the reality.

But surely, the planning of summer reading is something that I can do and then have a real chance of bringing to fruition?  Actually, you know, it isn’t.

Dirda is very honest about this and so I must be as well.  He writes of all the reading he would like to do – catching up with back issues of periodicals, reading new books and discovering new authors, exploring in greater depths writers from earlier periods only touched on in the past – and then acknowledges that if he gets through one or two books and five issues of the TLS he will have done better than usual.  And the same is true for me.  As long as I can remember I have made plans for what I was going to read as soon as school was out and my time was my own and yet every year I reach the Last Night of the Proms, and find myself singing Jerusalem surrounded by the unopened books that constitute this year’s good intentions.

What goes wrong?  I’m not certain.  Maybe it is not having to read for a deadline.  Perhaps it is because there is suddenly time to wander further afield, visiting book shops I haven’t been into since last summer where new and unexpected siren voices call out to me to be bought and read instead of those titles so carefully hoarded for the holiday hours.

So, I haven’t yet started to construct a list of titles for this summer.  Can I break the habit of a lifetime and just ‘go with the flow’?  Probably not.  If the truth be told, I like lists too much.  Perhaps it is the making of the list rather then the reading of the books that I really enjoy.  Anyway, my summer doesn’t start for another six weeks, so I’ve got time to decide, time to make half a dozen lists if I really want to.

Reading With Dirda

In her book, Q’s Legacy, Helene Hanff records the way in which she set out to educate herself with the help of the essays of the Cambridge Professor, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, known to his students and to the world of academe in general, simply as Q. His collection, Cambridge Lectures, is not that easy to get hold of these days, but a colleague who was retiring had a copy that he willingly passed over to me. I read these and very much enjoyed them, but they were written almost a hundred years ago and I’ve been looking for something a little more modern that would open up new areas of literature for me in the way that Q did for Hanff.

Browsing around other people’s blogs I started to come across a name which, in the UK, is almost unknown, that of Michael Dirda. As I’m sure many of you know Dirda is a columnist for the Washington Post Book World, and looking through some of those columns online I began to think that perhaps I found my modern day equivalent of Q. I hope Dirda will forgive me if I say that possibly the best word I can think of to describe his writing is promiscuous. He reads voraciously, across genre, across time period, across subject matter, and at least half of the time he’s writing about books I know nothing of.

A quick browse around the Internet revealed several collections of his writings and this morning a slim volume entitled Book by Book, popped through the letterbox. This appears to be made up of, well, I hesitate to call them essays because some appear to be lists or catalogues of names and ideas, so let us say 10 sections with such intriguing titles as The Pleasures of Learning and The Interior Library.  And, at the end of the book, there is an additional section A Selective and Idiosyncratic Who’s Who, which gives brief details of just some of the authors Dirda mentions throughout this work. There are many personal favourites, Joan Aiken, Colette, Umberto Eco, even Ella Fitzgerald. But there are many more who are just names I’ve come across or, even more exciting, names that I haven’t.

I’ve made a mental note to start collecting Dirda’s online articles and I have several other collections on order, but this little book, similar in size and scope to Q’s Cambridge Lectures seems an ideal place to begin expanding my own reading experience alongside this remarkably erudite yet accessible guide.  I imagine that it is inevitable that as a result the tbr pile is going to grow even higher than it is already, but there must be worse fates than to be buried under a pile of unread treasures, especially if, in order to dig one’s way out, you have to read a few unexpected gems.