I’ve never confessed this to anyone–until now. Decades ago, I borrowed a book from a friend. She was adamant that she wanted it back. She even wrote her name, address and phone number inside the front cover. Yet, I never returned it. Never. I’ve been wracked with guilt ever since. Why didn’t I return it? I never got around to reading it. As more and more time went by, I got more and more embarrassed about how much time had gone by. We lost touch. Then I moved away, packing the book up with all my other stuff. Wanting to avoid any recurrence of that guilt is one of the reasons I rarely borrow books from other people. Only from libraries. Another reason is the sense of obligation I feel as soon as the book is in my hands, the sense that I must read this book and no other, just so I can hurry it back to its owner. I’m not comfortable with the weight of that burden. I’m also afraid I’ll damage it. Once I borrowed a mystery from a friend. Brand new hardback with a dust jacket. I read it right away without any mishaps. But, just as I was putting it in the car to return to her, I accidentally put the tiniest tear in the dust jacket. I felt awful. She, of course, was forgiving. But I was full of chagrin. She had entrusted me with this possession, and here’s how I treated it. Yes, I know I’m a bit extreme about this, but because I am, it’s safer for me not to take the chance.
On the other hand, if I lend a book, it’s never really a lend. Since I know there’s a good chance I won’t get it back, I let it go. Even if I haven’t read it yet, I say, “oh, just take it. Don’t worry about giving it back.” I don’t want that burden myself, so I won’t obligate anyone else. If it’s something I must keep, I won’t lend it in the first place. And when I do borrow, I try to be very clear. “Do you want this back?” I give myself a two-week time limit. Read or return. No exceptions. No guilt. And no more packing up and leaving town with other people’s books.
In my last post, I argued one of the reasons for reading was for companionship. I meant in the sense that when you are engrossed in a good book, it’s almost impossible to feel lonely. But there is another sense in which we read for companionship. While at first glance reading looks like a solitary pursuit, it actually isn’t. Reading is one of most common and delightful methods of forming connections with other people. It’s like the old cliché about “water cooler conversations” the morning after a big sporting or other event on TV. People everywhere bond over books.
And it’s not just book clubs, although those are many and active. (Turns out some are just excuses to get together, have dinner and drink wine. Nothing wrong with that, either!) One of the first things people often do when visiting someone else’s home for the first time is scan their bookshelves to see what they read. Then you say, “oh, hey, I read that. What did you think?” Or, “I was thinking about reading this. Is it worth it?” Most people liked to be asked their opinions. A conversation blooms. We bond over the contents, but also the activity itself. I’ve been known to interrupt people reading alone in a restaurant to ask how they liked that particular book. I try to be selective, but most people I’ve approached have been pleased to have a short chat and share their responses, to add other titles and to ask me for ideas. Then we both go our own ways, after having those few moments of human connection. When meeting someone new, if you have nothing else in common, you can almost always find some book to mention.
The people in my Trivia group are heavily into sharing books and suggestions. Okay, we meet in a bookstore, so maybe that’s no surprise. While not all of the players are readers, the ones who are find each other. And to me, when I have house guests and we are all sitting around the living room, each quietly reading after a hard day of sightseeing, it creates a deep feeling of peaceful togetherness. Solitary? Not in the least.
More specifically, why read books? Why do I even ask this? If you follow this blog, you’re likely an avid reader, of darn near everything. I still want to offer some reasons. For information, of course. For entertainment, naturally. But also:
For history. Authors such as Alison Weir, Bernard Cornwell and Tracy Chevalier are committed to accuracy in their historical novels. One favorite of mine is The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks.
For therapy. A friend of mine was anxiously awaiting the results of a biopsy. She discovered Whitethorn Woods, by Maeve Binchy. This tale of basically decent people, being there for each other and facing life’s difficulties, gave her hope and emotional soothing during the dark hours of night. (The biopsy showed only benignity.)
For healing. This is especially true of memoir, especially if you are recovering from similar experiences to what the writer has endured and survived. But when my wonderful husband died, I found great comfort in Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. While not a memoir, it related the stories of many other people facing end of life issues. It was comforting to me to feel that connection to every other human being, as we all do, or will, face this inevitable end.
For company: There’s that saying, “Book lovers never go to bed alone.” I can honestly say, I never have.
I had some minor eye surgery a few weeks ago. Pre-op and post-op instructions were clear, manageable and complete. No driving, bending. lifting anything over 20 pounds, all the usual stuff. But there was one HUUUGE exception. They didn’t tell me I wouldn’t be allowed to read for 24 hours. Or work on the computer. They told me this only AFTERWARDS. Why on earth would they not mention something so crucial? At least crucial to me. They probably had no idea they were dealing with someone who has a reading addiction. There was nothing like that on the pre-op questionnaire. Some of my friends didn’t get why I was so devastated. I could still watch TV, right? And it’s only for 24 hours. Easy for them to say. Look, if I’m alone and unoccupied, it’s hard for me to go 24 minutes without access to something to read. I’m the kind of person who ALWAYS has something to read. You know, just in case. Just in case the doctor is running late. Just in case traffic is light and I get where I’m going way early. Just in case I have, for whatever reason, a few minutes to kill. If I don’t need it, so what? Carrying a small book, magazine, or an e-book is a minor extra in my tote bag. If I forget to bring something, I start to fret. I read while waiting for the previews to start at the movies. I read during commercial breaks on TV. (Okay, maybe I’m a little cuckoo.)
I got through it, of course. My wonderful friends called me so I could pass the time in long telephone conversations. But here’s the thing: if I had known ahead of time, I could have prepared. With an audio book or podcast ready to go at the push of a button, or rather a tap on the screen. Well, I won’t be caught short again. And I now have a set of quality earbuds to prove it.