Our Reading Lives

On Book Lending: Confessions of a Reluctantly Neurotic Bibliophile

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Claire Handscombe


Claire Handscombe moved from Europe to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but actually – let’s be honest – because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She also hosts the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Blog: the Brit Lit Blog. Twitter: @BookishClaire

I’m not proud of this, but I never lend books. I’ve never been able to find anyone who takes care of them as well (ie: as neurotically) as I do, and so I am always sad when they are returned because inevitably the corners are smushed or the spine is cracked or the books otherwise show signs of – gasp! – having been read.  And then I go down a destructive spiral of being annoyed with the person, trying to forgive the person, being annoyed at myself for being annoyed, and trying to forgive myself for being the kind of person who gets annoyed at such trivial things . It’s all a lot of unnecessary and exhausting emotion.

But recently one of my closest friends asked for a book when she was going into hospital for her pregnancy to be monitored. I couldn’t exactly say, no! You might crease the cover! I couldn’t, and I didn’t want to. I love that she came to me when she was in need of something good to read. I love being generous. And I love sharing my love of books. I wish I were the kind of person who lent books. I wish I weren’t so precious about them as objects – I really do.

And so it turns out that there are very specific circumstances under which I will lend books, after all.

I have to love the person to whom I am lending the book. 

The person asking has to understand what books mean to me as physical objects.
They have to be willing to at least try to be careful.

I have to have read and liked the book.
I have a reputation to maintain as Someone Who Knows About Books. I can’t risk that on hearsay.

The book should be, if possible, a little worn already.

Usually, this means I bought the book at a second hand bookshop. That way I either won’t notice a little scuffing or know for sure if it was there before. So I can’t blame the person if it is a little damaged when it is returned, or (hopefully) get irritated with myself for being so precious and selfish about what are, after all, just objects.

If possible, it should be a spare copy.
Luckily, I had spares of both The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P and Come to the Edge. (The latter even has the tiniest coffee stain on it, hence its being spare – I bought it for my flatmate and then couldn’t bring myself to give it to her in its imperfect state.) They couldn’t be more different (aside from their authors both being smart, lovely, Brown-educated women whom I’m privileged to know) but I’ve read and  loved them both. Why else would I have spares?

My friend really enjoyed them both, and that, of course, made me happy. So who knows, maybe the joy of sharing a book I love with a person I love will overcome my selfish tendencies? I believe in miracles…