Losing Books, and Friends With Them

I am shamelessly proud of my personal library. At last count I had over 500 books, obtained through regular retail purchases but mostly bought at a huge bargain from flea markets in Mumbai and Kochi. Some of the books in my collection were bought at as low as 50 rupees a piece. A few years ago, I was so obsessed with second-hand book shops that I used to lug bags – one in each hand – full of books including a few hidden gems (such as the first edition of Kingsley Amis’ Booker Prize-winning 1986 novel The Old Devils) and organize them in my crowded shelves. I was buying more than I was reading, a behaviour I believe is common in people who like to own books. This resulted in a few duplicates (because I was losing track of the books I owned; seven at last count) that I eventually had to give away with a half heart.

Stacked books
One of my overcrowded bookshelves

It is, therefore, natural for me to feel bad when friends and acquaintances borrow books from me and never return, or worst, lose them. I shouldn’t be blaming them because it’s usually me who prods them to ask away and borrow a title or two if I have it. As you may relate with, finding a person who reads is a damn good feeling. Till a few years ago, I even suggested strangers visiting my website to drop me an email if they found a book they fancied in my library.

After seeing a drought in my reading activity due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I recently resumed active reading. You see, my last article on books was published in 2019. I’m happy to report that I’m averaging a book a week and I hope to maintain that till I donate my little library to my alma mater or someone who shows interest before I drop dead.

This active reading took me back to my inventory, an Excel workbook with seven spreadsheets listing the physical books I own (each with its acquisition cost and the name of the shelf it sits in), Kindle titles, a Booker Prize checklist, and a Sahitya Akademi checklist, among others. It is here where I found that a few books that I had lent before and during the pandemic had not been returned. I had noted the name of the borrower against each book, and I had the phone number of most borrowers. I’ve lost a total of seven books this way, out of which three were lost by borrowers during the aforementioned period. And with the books, I think I lost a bit of camaraderie with those who lost them too.

The first of the three was due to sheer carelessness. I had lent Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner to a close friend. He’s a reader too and I’ve borrowed at least one book from him which I duly returned. Understandably, he finished it quickly and gave it a mutual friend of ours as they happened to meet. Since we live in different pin codes, the mutual friend said he’ll keep the book with him and I could collect it whenever I’m nearby. I think a couple of years passed, within which his house was renovated, or so I was told. And in that commotion, it was misplaced somewhere. It’s somewhere in my house, I’m sure, but I can’t find it. He offered money in return which I declined because that was not the point.

In the second instance, a book was lent to a colleague pre-pandemic. Not much of a reader, she said she’ll take some time to finish it. I had no idea that would be four years. When I asked her about the book last month, she didn’t even know the name of the book. I didn’t ask but I’m sure she hadn’t finished reading it. Unlike The Kite Runner, I hadn’t read it.

In the third instance, I had to publicly post a LinkedIn update to grab the attention of an acquaintance just because he was not contactable on his phone number. That guy had borrowed my copy of Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People, a book I hadn’t read yet and which was still wrapped in its thin, transparent polythene cover when I last saw it, in his hands. That was in 2018 and it was never returned. When he finally responded to me on LinkedIn, he said he’d never taken it home and it was possibly collecting dust in a drawer of his desk at work. This was worse than someone telling me that they burned my book because it offended them.

I was the most furious at this loss because although I wasn’t exposed to Joseph prior to the lending (in contrast, the guy was as he was interested in journalism), I grew into his writing post-pandemic when I began reading his Mint columns. His cutthroat commentary on “the Mumbai spirit” is fun to read. (Here’s a recent one I love (paywalled).)

As of today, all of these lost books still elude me. I could simply buy them again and forget about it all but what has stayed with me (and the borrowers, I’m sure) is the friction in our relationship. The fact that to them I might have seemed like a lunatic who can trouble them to remind about a book has surely corroded the intensity of our relationship, friendship or acquaintanceship notwithstanding. Although I haven’t met some of them since they broke the news to me, I recently felt something cold in how a friend (who was almost forced to return my books) treated me. She didn’t make it obvious but I could sense it somehow, a hint of which was obvious in her communication on WhatsApp.

I’m sure none of them even think about the book episode now and maybe I’m just overthinking on what seems like a petty issue. It’s just a book, after all. Though, there is something mysterious in book lending that I’m unable to describe here. Something that attaches me to my books after I make them a part of my library.

This disregard for books by borrowers is a common trait that I was first warned about by an old friend in Muvattupuzha. He is my maternal uncle’s close friend and a fervent reader. I would even say that he has had a strong influence on my reading habits. It was in his books that I first saw a rubber stamp with his name and address, most probably to remind his borrowers who the books belonged to, and perhaps to passively chide them a little because return was now long overdue.

These days I have a strict policy where I tell my borrowers that they have a month to read and return. If not, they better return it without reading. Currently, I have a book with a former colleague (since 2014) who says he has it and another one with my niece who’s taking so long to finish reading it at least one film adaptation of the book has released and left the screens already.

2 responses to “Losing Books, and Friends With Them”

  1. I wish I could write with such precise articulation of words and thoughts.
    Whenever I have the patience to read through your entire post, i am instantly transported back to the wonderful feature articles i love to read on Hindustan Times weekend edition.
    Also did I tell you the writers get paid If their articles are published.
    I will be super happy if i get to read yours, but equally envious too because, being a columnist in a leading newspaper is a dream i jumped into writing for.
    So maybe, you should definitely try. Why not start with this itself?

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