Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Book Predators

We've all met them. The Book Predators who borrow your books and never return them. I was introduced to them fairly early in life, probably because the collective love for books that ran in my family had ensured that I had a massive collection of wonderful books from a very young age. At first I had no problem lending my books to people I knew. I'd derived several hours of pure joy thanks to a particularly wonderful book that I had chanced upon at a friend or relative's house and that they had been kind enough to lend me, and I knew only too well the thrill one gets when one feels that instant connect with a book, the blissful feeling of losing oneself between its covers, savoring the moment when one can get back to it after a break and basking in that warm feeling after a delightful read, reliving the high points and knowing that you could reach out to savour them all over again.

'Anne of Green Gables' was one such find, I'd come across it at a family friend's house where we'd been invited for dinner and had spent the evening devouring it, much to the chagrin of the other kids who were one player short for a detective game they wanted to play. 'What Katy Did Next' was another. 'A Suitable Boy' was read over the course of a weekend at my aunt's, hidden under the duvet by my cousin's bed so the adults couldn't find me and send me packing to the club for swimming lessons with my cousins.

And so I lent my books as well, to friends who asked, hoping that this would be the start of a wonderful relationship between them and my beloved book. And that's when I encountered the Book Predators. Those heartless souls who steal your books without a second thought, with no intention of ever returning them. I had no idea how to deal with them then and the years haven't made me any wiser. If at all, it was easier when I was a child, I could just impose the 'House Rules' on them, namely, direct them to my parents for permission before borrowing a book or simply state that I was not allowed to lend books. This backfired quite often, especially if the parent in question was my mother who tended to have a rather liberal, 'ah, these things happen' outlook when a book went missing, and who in general felt that I read way too much anyway and would be better off being out of doors instead. Still, there were times when I was able to save my books thanks to the 'House Rules'. However the problem with house rules is that they tend to become redundant after a point. That point is typically reached when you find you now have a house of your own, and worse still you are now the parent and the figure of authority, so you can't exactly tell that beady eyed female spectre eyeing your beloved Wodehouse that you have to check with Daddy first.

I have no problem lending my books to someone who I know shares my love and respect for books and who I know will return a borrowed book in good condition eventually. But what does one do with a predator? The new acquaintance who borrows a book and promptly forgets all about it. The relative who forgets that it was your book they'd borrowed and lends it to someone else and then loses track of it. The sister in law's friend who moves to a new country taking three of your precious books along and proceeds to completely lose touch with both you and the sister in law.

What does one do? Taking a cue from a friend, who's lost several books of her own, I began to write 'STOLEN FROM MANASI' in large, bold letters on the front page of all my books in an attempt to dissuade potential book predators. It didn't work. A friend's wife borrowed one such book three years ago and it vanished into near oblivion. This was one of my favourite books and it had been gifted by a dear friend, so it had that much more sentimental value attached to it. I tried asking for it politely after a longish time period had passed, definitely enough for the friend's wife to have read it three times over.
"I haven't even read it yet!" she laughed breezily.
"In that case, why the hell did you borrow it in the first place?" I asked. In my head of course, as I smiled politely and told her to take her time.
I asked again after some more time had elapsed. And again, the reminders getting less polite each time. I never got the book back. They moved to another city some time later and we lost touch. A few days ago I happened to be in the same city they were in and my friend invited us over for dinner. And there was my beloved book, bang in the center of the arty looking bookshelf, ensconced between a film magazine and a trade journal, gazing at me beseechingly. What happened next was bizarre. I politely asked the friend's wife if it was the same book she'd borrowed from me. She flatly denied it and said it was her own. What's more she had no recollection of ever having borrowed such a book from me. I asked if I could look at the book and opened it to the first page where my own handwriting and the words 'STOLEN FROM MANASI' awaited me. The friend's wife found this hilarious. She'd forgotten that she'd ever borrowed this book, forgotten that she'd ever had it all these years. The worst part? She hadn't even read it.

P doesn't get my frustration with the Book Predators. His attitude is, you can't really refuse point blank if someone asks to borrow a book. So you lend it and hope for the best. If you don't get it back, you can always buy it again. I disagree. It's not just about buying the book again. It's all the memories and the special moments associated with that one particular book. The book that accompanied you on your first train journey alone. The book that you bought to celebrate getting into b-school and that spent that first year with you in your hostel room. The book that you discovered, and later fell in love with, on a crowded, dusty shelf in the airport bookstore of a seaside town as you waited for a long delayed flight, while the rain Gods unleashed their torrential fury outside. A newly purchased book clinically bought as a replacement can never bring those memories back.

Its not like I don't fight for my books. There are some people to whom you can lend your books without a second thought. Then there are the others, who fall into the grey category; some of these people could be predators. I've been rude and refused to lend my books point blank. I've laid down conditions and told them the reason why. I've had to follow up and remind people to return my books. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn't. But it's always painful. People get offended and relationships get strained. And books still go missing. And until I find that elusive perfect solution I guess I must suffer. What about you? How do you guard your books against the Book Predators?
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