Book honesty: in praise of libraries

Sean O'F book

I lived near a library as a child, and spent a lot of time there. I’ve no idea where the nearest bookshop was, but we visited the library every week. Then for a long time my nearest library was in a gloomy underpass and filled with grimy books. (A bookshop in the same location had previously gone bust.) Unsurprisingly this library was not exactly mobbed on the rare occasions when it could be found open. But where I currently live, there are no bookshops for miles around and it’s impossible to buy a book except online. Fortunately a well maintained library is open five days a week, and as a result I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of borrowing books. Which is, I think, quite a different pleasure from owning them.

Borrowing a book is a bit like a two-night stand. No real commitment, a frank relationship that is necessarily brief. Owning a book, by contrast, is all about the anticipation. By four weeks in, it’s perfectly possible that you may not even have begun to read your new purchase. You may be saving it, glancing at the cover every now and then and promising yourself to find time for it soon. But does whether you own or borrow a book play a part in whether you eventually finish reading it?

The chances are if I’m enjoying the book I will finish it either way. But when it comes to a book I’m not getting along with, whether it’s owned or borrowed makes a huge difference. With a borrowed book I find it easier to be honest with myself about whether or not I want to keep reading, because on the table next to it are five other books I also borrowed, each with the same return date stamped on them. Buying a book, by contrast, sets up a sort of obligation to finish it, which is fine if things ‘work out’, but not if this turns into a duty (waste-not-want-not, finish-your-greens, get-your-£12.99’s-worth-of-book). I’m sure you know the feeling. You keep going until the bitter end and if, when you’re done, you ask yourself “What was that all about?” — well sometimes there isn’t much to say. With a library book, there’s no such obligation. And no such disappointment.

Yesterday when returning a batch of 6 books to the librarian I admitted that I’d skipped reading one. He smiled and said, ‘No point forcing yourself. Just borrow another one’.