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Lending of Books

A popular clergyman has found it necessary to appeal to his friends in a very touching way. The friends of the divine are requested to return "Colenso on the Pentateuch," and another volume which they have borrowed. The advertisement has none of that irony which finds play in the notice, "The Gentleman who took a brown silk umbrella, with gold crutch handle, and left a blue cotton article, is asked to restore the former." The advertiser seems to speak more in sorrow and in hope than in anger, and we sincerely trust that he may get his second volume of "Colenso on the Pentateuch." But if he does, he will be more fortunate than most owners of books. Pitiful are their thoughts as they look round their shelves. The silent friends of their youth, the acquisitions of their mature age, have departed. Even popular preachers cannot work miracles, like Thomas a Kempis, and pray back their borrowed volumes. As the Rev. Robert Elsmere says, "Miracles do not happen"--at least, to book-collectors.

"Murray sighs o'er Pope and Swift, and many a treasure more," said Cowper, when Lord Mansfield's house was burned, and we have all had experience of the sorrows of Murray. Even people who are not bibliophiles, nay, who class bibliophiles with "blue-and-white young men," know that a book in several volumes loses an unfair proportion of its usefulness, and almost all its value, when one or more of the volumes are gone. Grote's works, or Mill's, Carlyle's, or Milman's, seem nothing when they are incomplete. It always happens, somehow, that the very tome you want to consult is that which has fallen among borrowers. Even Panurge, who praised the race of borrowers so eloquently, could scarcely have found an excuse for the borrowers of books.


   "Tel est le triste sort de tout livre prete,
   Souvent il est perdu, toujours il est gate."


"Often lost, always spoiled," said Charles Nodier, "such is the fate of every book one lends." The Parisian collector, Guibert de Pixerecourt, would lend no books at all to his dearest friends. His motto, inscribed above the lintel of his library-door, was, "Go to them that sell, and buy for yourselves." As Pixerecourt was the owner of many volumes which "they that sell" cannot procure, or which could only be bought at enormous rates, his caution (we will not say churlishness) was rather inconvenient for men of letters. But if hard pressed and in a strait, he would make his friend a gift of the book which was necessary to his studies. This course had the effect of preventing people from wishing to borrow. But many of the great collectors have been more generous than Pixerecourt. We forget the name (not an illustrious one) of the too good- natured man who labelled his books, "Not my own, but my friends'." "Sibi et amicis" ("His own and his friends' property") has been the motto of several illustrious amateurs since Grolier and Maioli stamped it on the beautifully decorated morocco of their bindings. Other people have invented book-plates, containing fell curses in doggrel Latin or the vernacular on the careless or dishonest borrower:


   "Aspice Pierrot pendut
   Parceque librum non a rendu"


is the kind of macaronic French and Latin which schoolboys are accustomed to write under a sketch of the borrower expiating his offences on the gallows.

The mischief of borrowing, the persistent ill-luck which cleaves to property thus obtained, have been proverbial since the young prophet dropped the axe-head in the deep water, and cried, "Alas, for it is borrowed." The old prophet, readily altering the specific gravity of the article, enabled his disciple to regain it. But there are no prophets now, none, at least, who can repair our follies, and remove their baneful effects by a friendly miracle. What miracle can restore the books we borrow and lose, or the books we borrow and spoil with ink, or with candle-wax, or which children scrawl or paint over, or which "the dog ate," like the famous poll-book at an Irish election, that fell into the broth, and ultimately into the jaws of an illiterate animal? Books are such delicate things! Yet men--and still more frequently women--read them so close to the fire that the bindings warp, and start, and gape like the shells of a moribund oyster. Other people never have a paper- knife, and cut the leaves of books with cards, railway tickets, scissors, their own fingers, or any other weapon that chances to seem convenient. Then books are easily dirtied. A little dust falls into the leaves, and is smudged by the fingers. No fuller on earth can cleanse it. The art of man can remove certain sorts of stains, but only by stripping the book of its binding, and washing leaf by leaf in certain acids, an expensive and dangerous process. There are books for use, stout, everyday articles, and books for pious contemplation, original editions, or tomes that have belonged to great collectors. The borrower, who only wants to extract a passage of which he is in momentary need, is a person heedless of these distinctions. He enters a friend's house, or (for this sort of borrower thrives at college) a friend's rooms, seizes a first edition of Keats, or Shelley, or an Aldine Homer, or Elzevir Caesar of the good date, and hurries away with it, leaving a hasty scrawl, "I have taken your Shelley," signed with initials. Perhaps the owner of the book never sees the note. Perhaps he does not recognize the hand. The borrower is just the man to forget the whole transaction. So there is a blank in the shelves, a gap among the orderly volumes, a blank never to be filled up, unless our amateur advertises his woes in the newspapers.

All borrowers are bad; but in this, as in other crimes, there are degrees. The man who acts as Menage advises, in the aphorism which Garrick used as a motto on his bookplate, the man who reads a book instantly and promptly returns it, is the most pardonable borrower. But how few people do this! As a rule, the last thing the borrower thinks of is to read the book which he has secured. Or rather, that is the last thing but one; the very last idea that enters his mind is the project of returning the volume. It simply "lies about," and gets dusty in his rooms. A very bad borrower is he who makes pencil marks on books. Perhaps he is a little more excusable than the borrower who does not read at all.

A clean margin is worth all the marginalia of Poe, though he, to do him justice, seems chiefly to have written on volumes that were his own property. De Quincey, according to Mr. Hill Burton, appears to have lacked the faculty of mind which recognizes the duty of returning books. Mr. Hill Burton draws a picture of "Papaverius" living in a sort of cave or den, the walls of which were books, while books lay around in tubs. Who was to find a loved and lost tome in this vast accumulation? But De Quincey at least made good use of what he borrowed. The common borrower does nothing of the kind. Even Professor Mommsen, when he had borrowed manuscripts of great value in his possession, allowed his house to get itself set on fire. Europe lamented with him, but deepest was the wail of a certain college at Cambridge which had lent its treasures. Even Paul Louis Courier blotted horribly a Laurentian MS. of "Daphnis and Chloe." When Chenier lent his annotated "Malherbe," the borrower spilt a bottle of ink over it. Thinking of these things, of these terrible, irreparable calamities, the wonder is, not that men still lend, but that any one has the courage to borrow. It is more dreadful far to spoil or lose a friend's book than to have our own lost or spoiled. Stoicism easily submits to the latter sorrow, but there is no remedy for a conscience sensible of its own unlucky guilt.


Andrew Lang