The sense of loss drifts into my head at random. Like when I see the author’s name on a blurb or mentioned in a review. Or for no particular reason other than my mind having time to wander, like the other day, when my family and I were driving home from a vacation at the shore. After about 10 minutes of droning highway silence, the kind tinged with post-vacation blues, I asked my husband a question. “Have you ever loaned a book to someone and never gotten it back, and it really bothers you?”
Hands on the wheel and looking straight ahead, he contemplated my question for a minute. “Not a book, no, but a CD a few years ago, yes.” He looked more solemn than I expected. I had clearly hit a nerve. My almost 9-year-old daughter chimed in from the backseat, terse and indignant. “Well, I have!” She was clearly disgruntled. “Book 1 of Mercy Watson. Remember? You loaned it to Lucy when I was in kindergarten. I never got it back.” An implied harrumph punctuated her lament. Despite her young age, I sensed she understood my arguably irrational grudge about the book I loaned almost two years ago to a friend.
As I look at my bookshelf now, I see the two inches of space where my book once lived.
Sure, for a mere $16, I could just as easily replace the book and get over it. In fact, I’ve loaned plenty of books in my lifetime, knowing all too well that they might and often do not return. Those are usually the books that left me underwhelmed, or I would have eventually donated, anyway. I’m fine with never seeing those books again.
But this was a book I specifically purchased after reading a borrowed copy from the library. It was a collection of essays that forced me not only to examine my own thoughts about the ideas the author stitched together, but also compelled me to raise the bar for my own writing. It moved me enough to warrant possessing a copy of my own to underline and reread, and it earned a hard-won spot on my bookshelf. It had become part of my “collection” and was, therefore, special to me, a person who only keeps the books I’ve truly loved.
It’s just a book, I tell myself. Paper and words assembled with glue and creative brilliance. Not a rare book. Not a gifted book with a special inscription. Not a sentimental keepsake from grade school or college. For less than 20 bucks, I could solve the whole damn thing right now.
Except, I realized, I really can’t. I’ve considered my unwavering petulance about this particular book, about why I don’t just buy a new copy and move on. I think I’ve figured it out. I loaned this book to someone who, at the time, was a very close friend. She was — and, in some ways, always will be — someone I envisioned discussing the book with over coffee. She was someone I fervently hoped and expected would be as passionate about the writing as I was. That it would result in another dimension of our friendship, clarified through the kind of prism only a book can provide. Where reading is largely a private, quiet act, discussing a book with someone else cracks wide open that bunker of solitude and one-dimensional contemplation, allowing us to digest and discern with others who have considered the same story.
Books are more than just prose and a way to pass the time. They are barometers of personality and preference. They are currency within friendships, a way to barter ideas. They are a conduit for the exchange of our individual perspectives, quite often leading to stark revelations about ourselves and each other.
Books are more than just prose and a way to pass the time. They are barometers of personality and preference. They are currency within friendships, a way to barter ideas.
Friendships fade sometimes, often to the point of no return. I’ve learned this with increasing frequency, most recently through this friend. It seems to be what has kept me from calling her at this protracted point and asking for the book. Not because I don’t want to come across as some stingy person who can’t let go of a book, but because I know I cannot let go of an intimate friendship now since covered over with the dust of time. I don’t want to go out of my way to confirm my suspicions with an awkward call ending in more dashed hopes and false promises to get together soon. Perhaps it is also why I still have not returned a book she once lent me, a book she raved about and that now lives in my nightstand drawer. I’ve not been able to bring myself to read it because I know that she’s no longer sufficiently in my life to discuss it, something that makes me profoundly sad.
As I look at my bookshelf now, I see the two inches of space where my book once lived. I’m left with the sinking feeling that my wallet will once again be $16 lighter. Maybe my heart will feel lighter then, too. But I will continue to hold on to the hope that maybe, someday, our paths will realign, and we can ask each other, “Hey, did you ever read that book? What did you think?” and then sit down to listen.