The Rules of Borrowing Books

‘The World of Yesterday’ has a very fond description of Rilke, who comes over as a softly-spoken, beauty-loving man: “all that was vulgar was unbearable to him, and although he lived in restricted circumstances, his clothes always gave evidence of care, cleanliness, and good taste. At the same time they showed thought and poetic imagination: they were a masterpiece of unpretension, always with an unobtrusive personal touch, a little something additional that gave him pleasure, such as perhaps a thin silver bracelet around his wrist.” (University of Nebraska Press 1964 p. 142)

He goes on to say: “If you lent him a book with which he was unfamiliar, it was returned faultlessly wrapped in tissue paper and tied with coloured ribbon like a gift.” (p. 145) I read this and thought how fantastic.


Book borrowing is a funny thing. Many a friendship has been ruined by an unreturned volume; lifelong grudges form. For some reason people seem to think that different rules apply to book borrowing than to other forms of sharing, as if a book doesn’t entirely count as a real property. This is, of course, ridiculous. Borrowing a book is a good thing – keeping the book for a long time is a fine thing, especially if the lender has overstuffed shelves to begin with – but there must be limits. So here they are:

1) Always return a borrowed book.

2) Return the book in the state you received it. Maybe the Rilke thing is going too far, but don’t dog-ear, underline or highlight. I personally don’t like the spines of my books to be cracked by anyone other than myself, but I’ve been told that’s a bit extreme.

3) If some awful accident does happen to the book, replace it. Don’t just vaguely offer: the lender, unless they’re an unusually forthright bookperson, will demure when you hand over some forlorn cat-piss stained, coffee-ringed, shell-of-its-former-self novel. They’ll say ‘oh no, it’s fine’ then go off and stick forks into a voodoo doll of you.

4) Prolonged Retention of Books. The etiquette of books borrowed for prolonged periods of time is a minefield. If you’ve read the book but keep forgetting to return it, that’s one thing: usually nature eventually takes its course. The trouble starts if you haven’t read it.

Sometimes a book is forced over-enthusiastically upon you and your heart sinks: there are only so many books in the world and you have only so much reading in your life, and yet you’re expected to sacrifice some of that eyework to something in which you have no interest. In this case, you either have to grit your teeth and read it, or else keep the book a reasonable length of time, flick through it, look it up on Amazon to read a couple of reviews, then return it with a white lie. This second option can use up as much effort as the first, and leaves you with a nasty sensation of guilt at the lie and a lingering nag that you might have missed out on a lifechanging experience. Although sometimes you just know you’re going to hate something, so this is the only option.

On the other hand, you might have quite willingly received the book and fully intend to read it, but just not at the moment, for whatever reason: life doesn’t permit leisure reading, or it doesn’t fit with the theme you are pursuing. In that case, warn the lender at the time that you might not be able to tackle it for a while, then periodically mention the book to them so they know you haven’t either forgotten about it or absorbed it into your own library. If it’s getting ridiculous, and you’ve had it a couple of years, then return it, saying that someone gave you another copy as a present. Then, if in the distant future you still want to read it, buy the damn thing.

5) Don’t Chain Lend. Chain lending is when you lend out a book you’ve borrowed from someone else. If everyone did this the world would descend into chaos within a week: everyone would lose track of who owned what book. This might sound like a book-utopia of free access to everything but I suspect the books would just all end up in one place.

Anyway. Rilke sounds nice.


3 thoughts on “The Rules of Borrowing Books

  1. What about a list of ready excuses for using when someone asks to borrow a book and you know that either you won’t get it back, or if you do it will be in a stained, spine cracked state.


  2. The other day I went to my bookshelf to reference a specific volume, only to realize I had lent it to someone about a year ago. I don’t even remember who it was, and they never gave the book back. I had to order another one. Granted, it was cheap on Amazon, but that really makes me furious. This is a nice list, and the Rilke anecdote is a good touch.


  3. This certainly spoke to me. I still bear a grudge after lending a copy of John Fowles’ The Magus to a friend over 20 years ago (along with The Golden notebook – didn’t get that back either) , I never got it back and have now lost touch with the “friend”. Fowles went on to rewrite The Magus, and this original version is now hard to get.

    What is particularly irritating about non returning of books is that one only lends the good ones. Perhaps one solution is to recommend a plonker and then people will be more wary of borrowing from you.


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