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On Reading Books Borrowed

Written by Carmen X, one of our poetry writers, and edited by Willow, one of our editors!


Open and forgotten

Several hours by the window,

The book was fingered

Only by capricious winds.

  • Ōkuma Kotomichi

O, the loneliness of any unread book! If someone recommends to me a book—and actually goes to the trouble of remembering to return the next day with their personal copy of said book to hand over to me—I tend (or at least try) to take that recommendation seriously and basically start reading it as soon as possible, if not immediately. I try to be generous with my time.—For those I want to try and be generous with, I mean, I try to be generous with my time. I can claim no sainthood. (And as if I’m not already reading multiple books at once!—But here’s Virginia Woolf by way of her letters: “I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time.”—What’s one more book to read? another note among that chord? Or am I justifying my time-wasting?) When you open that book to that first page, when you then flip through all the pages as you read, do you not in some low-level way, ambient like warmth in a cozy room, feel something of a ghostly presence, her, whose book you’re borrowing? Your eyes over the same words; hands handling the spine carefully, keeping, even if passively, in the back of your head that this book is not yours, you are but a guest in this book-house, so you must act accordingly. Does she not become a theme too? in reading this book and learning about these characters and intaking the grammar and the prose does some insight fall upon her face, her face’s image in your head, like soft light? “So this is what interests you?” I think every time. (And of course I make no judgments or equivalence between the content of a book and the content of her—the person whose book I’m borrowing—character. That’d be silly.) We might gravitate toward different things within this book, like or dislike the same parts, it doesn’t matter, the book has pulled us in all the same. And perhaps you learn your own limits: it might turn out a book is actually totally bullshit and not your thing (I pray that doesn’t happen to you, or at least not very often); your tastes may differ and yet you can still be friends (I pray that is the case for you). But in any case, I take care of these kinds of borrowed things: the book feels heavier in my hand. Once upon a time I lended a book out: she (this is a different “she”) returned it—having read it, gratefully and appreciated—the cover slightly bent and pages dog-eared and a wine stain across the bottom of the object. I can’t say I was thrilled but the feeling didn’t last; it was proof positive, proof physical of that book between us, a strange sharing of the same space, like encountering each other in the same dream. Granted, getting the book back like that did threaten to rankle. It was a nice clean NYRB Classics copy too!

Reading a borrowed book is like getting to know a new potential friend, a chance encounter, the kind we live for. And like people, these new friends, they should be taken seriously. A book earnestly read and then returned and discussed like any other. I mean, only if you want to. Most people tend not to check out anything recommended to them, and probably for good reason. Think of the amount of time you have left in your life, and it’s probably less than that. Maybe the chump wasting their time this whole time is me.


This piece was written by one of our poetry columnists, Carmen X. Reach them at @animagebook, on Instagram!

This piece was edited by one of our editors, Willow. Reach them at @oldmanheart, on Instagram!


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