Our Reading Lives

A Love Letter to the Books I Have Lost

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Let me guess: you are wondering, Why now?

I wish I knew how to answer that. It took me by surprise, too. Maybe I can blame it on the holidays. On the imminence of a new year. Or on the weather: it turns out there is something about the first snow fall that makes me prone to reflection. Maybe it is simply that I’m getting older.

books lost

Maybe the reason doesn’t matter.

I’ll start with the very first one. By the way, this is not for the sake of chronological symmetry. It is because with the first loss comes the first lesson: of the fragility of ownership, perhaps even the impossibility of it. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. An old copy: dog-eared, filled with notes on the margin (my notes), a page missing at the very end (thankfully, not an important one: boring publisher-related fine print). I’m fairly certain I know who took you. Her name is Jennifer. She denies it, of course. But she is the only one who borrowed you, and though she claims that she handed you back to me when we were chatting by the lockers, I have no memory of that. There is nothing I can do. It is her word against mine. On this day, I find out how difficult it is to prove a negative.

I become a lot more cautious after that. Especially around Jennifer. Fool me once and all that. Still, I can’t follow the adage that tells me never to be a lender, because that same adage urges me never to be a borrower. And I’m a fast reader. Fast readers need to borrow. Besides, I can’t live my life in fear of losing again. This is what I tell myself.

And then it happens again. I’m a little older this time: fourteen years old. Summer Sisters by Judy Blume. This time I narrow down my list of suspects to two possible culprits. They both deny it (there is clearly pattern here). You are one of the few to eventually come back. I spot you on a shelf when I am visiting Lucy’s house. Oh, I had been meaning to give that back to you, she says. I snatch you and promise never to lose you again. It takes me weeks before I can go back to talking to Lucy in a civilized way.

I try sticking to the school’s library, hoping that if I resist the allure of my friends’ bookshelves, then they will stay out of my own. No such luck. I begin to dread the sentence, Could I borrow this? Despite my best efforts (surprisingly sophisticated spreadsheets, including bookmarks with my name on the pages of my favorites, mnemonics to keep track of who took what) –  the list of casualties keeps on growing.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

The Violet Land by Jorge Amado.

Emma by Jane Austen.

The Alienist by Machado de Assis.

The damage is not limited to novels. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot both vanish into thin air. (Mercifully, I never lose one of Shakespeare’s works.)

Then, the one that breaks my heart most of all: Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits. I played Rosa in my I.B. English dramatic monologue. My copy had myriad colorful post-its, each hue referencing a different literary annotation. I will never know who took you, nor will I forgive them. Whoever said that holding a grudge isn’t healthy has never lost a beloved book.

Perhaps now is a good time for a mea culpa moment. There are ones that find their way to me, too. I never seek them out. Never take them without permission. Most are forgotten at my house. Still, they do not belong to me. For the most part, I give them back. But somewhere in my childhood bedroom is a copy of the tome used in my 9th grade World Literature class. I tell myself excuses: I graduated, I forgot, It’s been too long. But the (hypocritical) truth is that I am too weak to resist you ink-on-paper scent, your prominent weight, the countless tales stored inside your thousands of glossy pages.

A small consolation: I become a lot more careful in my university years. Still, a few of you do go missing. I can’t deny it. I remember Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes the most because you were a gift.

In 2010, I buy an iPad and discover iBooks. There is a lot that I could say about e-books, a lot I have said. I am e-books’ most passionate advocate. But my very favorite thing about them is that e-books cannot be borrowed, cannot be lost. Technology has brought me practicality, but most of all it has brought me peace of mind.

And yet, for all its wondrous power, it cannot erase the past. Cannot dim the memories I have of you, the ones I lost.

I hope you are happy in your new home. I hope that your new families appreciate you. I often dream that you live in a library. Wishful thinking, I know. But it brings me comfort.

With age comes maturity. The ability to say no. To say, I’m sorry, but I’m not comfortable lending this. I learn to trust my instincts: when I do buy paper books, I only lend them to my closest, most discerning friends.

Precious things should only be trusted to precious friends.