Saturday, January 2, 2010

On borrowing books

Like almost all passionate readers I prefer to own the books I really love. But since my budget has never been big enough to satisfy my hunger for new books, I often have to opt for the practicality of borrowing books.

Ah, borrowing books - a beautiful but dangerous road if ever there was one. Whenever I borrow a book from a friend, I risk falling into one of two treacherous traps. Either I love the book so much that I can't bear to live without it ever again. In which case I absolutely have to buy my own copy as soon as possible. Preferably even before I return the borrowed book. So much for stretching my budget by borrowing books.

Or, even worse, I enjoy the book so much that I can't possibly return it to its owner because anyone can see that it has been thoroughly enjoyed: caressed; carried around; opened and closed numerous times in numerous places; collecting small scars, slight stains, even faint odours along the way. In which case I simply have to buy a new copy for the old owner. And keep this slightly tattered one for myself. So much for stretching my budget...

Not that I mind the tattered look. I believe books take on a secret life of their own as they are read and reread and borrowed and swopped and sold and shared. To me reading is not an abstract intellectual or emotional experience, but a physical, sensual adventure in which the look and feel and even the smell of the book offer as much delight as the words and wisdom it contains.

Therefore I prefer not to borrow books in a pristine condition. It's a little like sleeping with a virgin, I imagine. One doesn't want to spoil the pleasure by feeling guilty afterwards. No - rather lend me a book that has obviously been loved by someone before me.

Every once in a while, though, I fall for a 'virginal' book on someone else's shelf, a book that the owner has not had the time or inclination to read, and then I start perusing, perhaps even reading a few pages, and before I know it, I'm hooked. I have to - absolutely, immediately, urgently - read this book.

This happened again quite recently, while spending a few nights in a friend's guest room. Temptingly close to my bed was an immaculate copy of John Updike's Due Considerations (2007), a collection of essays, criticism and short pieces about absolutely anything under the sun. This sixth - and sadly, final - volume of Updike's non-fiction prose was published eight years after More Matter, which in turn followed eight years after Odd Jobs. When the author died exactly a year ago, I posted a blog entry about his influential fiction(January 2009). This time I want to praise his non-fiction.

Due Considerations is a big, fat book of more than 700 pages - the index alone covers 30 pages! - a fine example of the variety and depth of Updike's interests and passions. 'Assembled here are pieces on...Shakespeare, Henry James, Hemingway, Albrecht Dürer, a baseball star, sex in literature, poker, undergraduate life and plenty about the New Yorker', as the Literary Review stated - and then we haven't mentioned the brilliant pieces on cars, Coco Chanel, a visit to China and many, many more. Updike has an opinion about everything, it seems, but he delivers it with such unfailing good humor, fierce intelligence and flashy style that it doesn't matter whether you agree with him or not. As the Sunday Times claimed, these pages 'don't only pay handsome tribute to the pleasures of reading. They abundantly provide them.'

What more could any enthusiastic reader ask from any book about reading (among other things)?

It also happens to be the perfect bedside companion - or guest-room book - because you can dip into it at leisure and find something delectable on almost every page, close it when you grow sleepy, read another page on a totally different subject when you wake up. This is how I started reading it in my friend's home, simply hoping for a few nights' entertainment, but I soon wanted more...

So when my friend kindly offered to lend it to me, I took it home and devoured it from cover to cover - and realised a little too late that the book wasn't looking quite as immaculate as when I first laid my eyes on it. (And to be honest, by this time I couldn't bear the thought of parting with a book that had provided me with so much reading pleasure.) I was obliged to find another copy for my friend - and quickly too.

Thank heaven for internet book shops. Now my friend has her new virgin copy to read, if she ever gets around to reading it, and I'm thrilled to have the frequently fondled familiar old copy next to my own bed. Together with heaps of other books I recently read or still want to read, tomorrow, next week, next month.

To all the readers out there, may 2010 be filled with fabulous books - bought, begged or borrowed - and enough spare hours to enjoy all of them.