Saturday, October 28, 2006

Interlibrary Loan

Those of us in the book publishing world spend an awful lot of time these days talking about the book. As I was typing that, I realized you’re probably sitting their thinking, “Uh-duh. Of course you talk about books,” but what I mean by that is the physical book, those printed pages nestled between the two ends of a cover. We wonder how it’s going to change. Is it going to last, or will it go the way of the vinyl record? Are people too impatient these days to sit down and read a whole book?

So, I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues the other morning about the efficiency and effectiveness of the book, and he mentioned something that rarely comes up in these discussions, which is that people like to lend books. This was just after another colleague of mine had walked into a meeting with me and pulled from her bag a copy of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (in case you couldn't tell, I was visiting the office this past week). She told me I had to read it, that I’d find it fascinating (judging from what she told me about it and the cover copy, I’m sure I will).

This got me thinking. Is there anything more flattering than having someone lend you a book? I mean, people can lend you CDs, or they can lend you DVDs, but ultimately, those don’t take quite as much thought, nor as much investment of time. Also, people don’t tend to refer to music and movies as “friends,” do they?

To be lent a book means that: A. someone was actually thinking of you when he was reading it, or at least thinking of you right after he read it, B. someone is willing to risk having you think he’s a complete fool by recommending something you might hate, C. someone is willing to part with something he adores in order to share it with you, and D. someone trusts you enough to believe you won’t walk off with it forever. Is there anything more emotionally intimate or generous than that?

Point A really needs absolutely no explanation: “someone is thinking of me! When I’m not around. Wow!” When it comes to point B, I have to admit, although some books I’ve borrowed from friends haven’t exactly turned up on my most-favorite list, none of my friends has ever lent me a book I absolutely hated. That’s flattering in and of itself, since they’ve obviously put energy into thinking about what I might like. And then there’s point C. Imagine taking one of your best friends (let’s call her Sarah) and saying to another friend (let’s call her Patty), “Here, you two hang out for a while together, because I don’t really need Sarah that much right now, and I’m sure you two will get along famously. Hang out with her as long as you’d like, Patty, but please just make sure I get her back at some point.” No one would do that (and I’m beginning now to understand those people I know who refuse to lend books). Point D is why at this point in my life, having grown up and realized what a rare thing trust can be, I’m much, much more vigilant and obsessive about returning books than I was when I was younger.

When I’m getting to know someone, I always feel we’ve reached some sort of turning point in our relationship when we begin to lend each other books, and my best friends almost always turn out to be those with whom I share books. You start off talking about titles with each other and lending those the other person says she thinks sound good. Eventually, you move into this sort of unspoken territory in which you do things like produce books you’ve never discussed with each other every time you visit or meet for lunch or dinner. And then, sometimes, out of the blue, you just might receive an Amazon package from that friend who’s decided you might like something so much, you ought to have it for your own collection.

My colleague was right. I just can’t imagine exchanging something like an ebook with a friend. Will we one day just email links to each other? Somehow, like a peck on the cheek versus that first real kiss from a new love, I’m sure I will never be able to find that as satisfying. I hope the physical book as we know it at least out lasts my lifetime.

(I’m beginning to realize I really ought to just change the name of this blog from “Telecommuter Talk” to “Book Talk.” But, I did mention the fact in this post that I was “visiting the office,” which was at least a nod to the fact that I telecommute.)


Rebecca H. said...

Nice post! You're right -- a book is a friend, and it's an important step when we are willing to lend them to people. I don't lend books often, but I do give them as gifts, and I work long and hard to make sure my friend will like them.

litlove said...

Thinking this over, I quite agree with you, Emily. I don't much like lending out my books for fear that they'll not come back in the same state they left me, or that they'll not come back at all. For me to press a book onto a friend or relative (and it does happen occasionally), is a genuine gift of love.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I just love this post. I can't imagine ever, ever, every reading a book online, or printing out a link for a book, and I hope if books do go that way, it's well after my lifetime. I hope the same for, you know, further global warming, losing the rain forests, etc. I am quite glad I'm living now, that's for sure.
Beautiful post!

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, I often find myself "chickening out" and giving Border's gift certificates, but I so love it when I give someone a book, and he/she loves it as much as I did.

Litlove, there's another part of that trust factor I forgot about (they're willing to let you borrow something that is so easy to return in a used and tattered state). I'm much more careful with the books people lend me than I am with my own.

Courtney, I'm with you on the global warming and rainforests, too (I feel so sorry for everyone's kids and grandkids, though, who will suffer through those future eras).