Wednesday, July 25, 2018

'Borrow My Books and Set Wet Glasses on Them'

I bought a copy of the Schocken Books edition of Franz Kafka’s Complete Stories when it was published in 1971. At the time, Kafka was important to me and this was the most comprehensive collection of his short fiction available in English. Three years later, I loaned it to an acquaintance who expressed interest in finally reading Kafka. When she returned it many months later, the dust jacket was torn almost in half and the front cover was buckled and brown from the coffee my lendee had spilled on it. Most of the pages  were also stained, swollen and warped. She returned it matter-of-factly, without apology, and it still sits on one of my bottom shelves.

To another acquaintance around the same time I loaned The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats, the old Macmillan edition with the blue and white cover. It came back dust jacket-less, with the graphically precise imprint of a dog’s teeth on the front and back covers. I ended up throwing it away and buying a later edition with the soft-focus mugshot of Yeats on the cover.

In the early nineties, a Louisiana-born reporter at the newspaper where I worked asked to borrow Liebling at Home, published by the Playboy Press. He had heard me talk up The Earl of Louisiana, one of the five Liebling volumes included in the omnibus edition.  When he returned the oversized paperback, the spine was split down the middle and most of the pages were loose. It was – and is – a pile of loose papers in roughly numerical order. I kept it out of loyalty to Liebling.

I report these things without bitterness and draw from them no universal moral, except that it’s probably wise simply to give books to deserving readers rather than loan them and expect they will be returned intact. In “Captain Craig,” Edwin Arlington Robinson’s title character permits his “grave friends” to “borrow my books and set wet glasses on them,” and seems resigned to their destruction. Dr. Johnson was known to treat books roughly. Coleridge borrowed Charles Lamb's copy of John Donne’s poems and wrote on the back fly leaf: “I shall die soon, my dear Charles Lamb! and then you--will not be vexed that I had bescribbled your Books.” He even dated his desecration: May 2, 1811. Coleridge lived another twenty-three years and went on vandalizing Lamb’s books. In “The Two Races of Men,” Lamb forgives his friend:

“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.”

1 comment:

rgfrim said...

This post should generate a Decameron of books-borrowed-books-trashed -when returned war stories. Here’s mine: a fellow lawyer returned my hardback copy of James McPherson’s “ Battle Cry of Freedom” in that dried out condition ( cover curled, pages stiffened) that made it appear it was left out in the rain. With a slight laugh and smile he admitted “ I dropped it in the toilet.” I appreciated his frankness.