Tuesday, October 02, 2012

`Shut Not Thy Heart, Nor Thy Library'

“I counsel thee, shut not thy heart, nor thy library.”

Generosity, always laudable, remains a crapshoot. Lending a book to a friend, even a book-loving friend (especially a book-loving friend?), is risky. If the volume is not declared an outright gift, resign yourself in advance to its loss or mutilation, and think of its return, undamaged, as a reciprocal gift.

Shuffling shelves over the weekend, I considered damaged and absent books, all subsequently replaced. In 1973, while working in a restaurant in Bowling Green, Ohio, I loaned another cook The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats, the MacMillan hard back with the blue and white cover. Gerard and my book soon disappeared, probably back to West Virginia. I bought a replacement copy, dated Aug. 8, 1975, from the Cleveland bookstore where I was working. Two shelves down is my copy of The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka, purchased when Schocken first published it in 1971. During the restaurant era mentioned above, I loaned it to the wife of a friend. Months later, after much nagging, she returned it with the cover torn in half and stained with what I’ve always hoped is coffee. The same discoloration is spattered randomly throughout the volume. The page on which the conclusion of "The Warden of the Tomb" and beginning of “A Country Doctor” appear (219-220) was torn out but thoughtfully placed between the adjoining pages.

 A decade later, I loaned my first edition of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being (1979), to another friend’s wife, this time in Richmond, Ind. I never saw the book again and don’t entirely regret it. She was not much of a reader but, like O’Connor, she had systemic lupus erythematosus, the disease that killed the Georgia writer in 1964 at age thirty-nine. Today, the paperback edition of The Habit of Being rests on my shelf – with Keats’ and Lamb’s, my favorite letters. I have other book-lending tales of woe (including the loss of a first edition of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions) but I’d rather cite the source of the quotation at the top of this post. It’s by Charles Lamb, from “The Two Races of Men,” his essay on borrowers and lenders. The former, when it comes to books, he calls “those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes.” He exempts Coleridge, his friend since childhood, however: 

“Reader, if haply thou art blessed with a moderate collection, be shy of showing it; or if thy heart overfloweth to lend them, lend thy books; but let it be to such a one as S. T. C. -- he will return them (generally anticipating the time appointed) with usury: enriched with annotations, tripling their value. I have had experience. Many are these precious MSS. of his -- (in matter oftentimes, and almost in quantity not unfrequently, vying with the originals) -- in no very clerkly hand -- legible in my Daniel: in old Burton; in Sir Thomas Browne; and those abstruser cogitations of the Greville, now, alas! wandering in Pagan lands. ---- I counsel thee, shut not thy heart, nor thy library, against S. T. C.”


Bruce Floyd said...

No other bookish man could maul and maim and bestain a book like Samuel Johnson. When his friends lent him a book they knew they were dooming the book to a messy end.

Anonymous said...

"[T]hose abstruser cogitations of the Greville..." is very funny.

drizzz said...

Your quote from The Two Races of Men reminds me of a quote I read the other day:
"There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t." —Robert Benchley