An Irishwoman’s Diary on delinquent book borrowers

Brought to book

They’re everywhere. Illustration: Thinkstock

They’re everywhere. Illustration: Thinkstock


They’re everywhere. Your best friend could be one. Or your sister. Even an innocent-looking colleague. We all know that delinquent book borrowers are out there but still we fall victim to them.

I’m thinking of that person who spies a book on your shelf and airily says: “Oh, can I borrow that?” “Of course,” you say, through gritted teeth.

Weeks pass, and no sign of the book. The gap in the shelf remains. Yet the borrower, or – let’s not mince words here – the wanton thief, carries on as though nothing has happened. Incredibly, they cannot feel your resentment festering at this monumental injustice.

What becomes of the books? Well, they have been eaten by dogs, dropped in soup or green-binned by enthusiastic recyclers. They have been recklessly re-lent to other people without a second thought. Or – the most cardinal sin of all – the borrower feigns knowledge of ever having had the book. It may be more than 20 years ago, but I still hold a tiny grudge against a very dear friend for once absconding with Nell McCafferty’s Goodnight Sisters under her oxter and later denying all culpability. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy ended up face down in another friend’s bath, while Felicia’s Journey will apparently never conclude as she’s still travelling on a train loop between Dublin and Galway. The Finkler Question must remain unanswered following its mysterious disappearance on a transatlantic flight.

An early experience may have made me more sensitive than most to these bookshelf plunderers. I was about eight when I won a book token. Now, as the second youngest of six children, getting a brand new anything was an extremely rare experience. And getting a brand new book was a reason for unconfined celebration. After hours of careful deliberation I emerged from Keohane’s book shop in Sligo clutching a book of short stories about Scottish dragons. Hubris led to my downfall. I had to show it off. I brought it into school and revealed it at lunchtime as we ate our black banana sandwiches and drank tea from tartan flasks.

One older girl was particularly taken with the book and asked to borrow it. Reader, you can see the tragic scenario preparing to unfold.

The book never came back. Days passed, weeks passed. I finally plucked up the courage to tackle her – well she was in fourth class. She denied ever receiving it and left me in no doubt that I must never speak of Scottish dragons again. Today, more than 35 years later, whenever I hear her surname an angry knot begins forming in the pit of my stomach.

I know I am not alone in my detestation of these bibliophilic bandits. There are many examples of medieval book curses where the thoughtless thieves are threatened with being frizzled on a pan, eaten by dogs, excommunicated or just damned in general.

Slightly over the top perhaps? Or is it a case of, if you do the crime, you do the time? Don’t keep someone else’s book if you’re not prepared to have bookworms gnawing your entrails.

Look at it this way. Would you borrow a neighbour’s saucepan and just gaily abandon it on a beach in Morocco? Would you borrow a ball gown and randomly give it to your plumber when you were finished with it? And yet people think it’s a great idea entirely when it comes to books.

Every book I own holds memories, as well as bus tickets, plane ticket stubs and grains of sand from the beach. When my eye falls on The Story of Lucy Gault I think of the day I finished the William Trevor book on the train to work and had to continue one stop further than normal until I had pulled myself together and stopped sobbing uncontrollably. The Virgin Suicides was bought on holidays in Elba after I had read every book I’d brought, thanks to the enthusiastic kango hammer that started outside our window at 8am every morning.

When I see Crime and Punishment I remember forcing myself to plough through it during lunch breaks on a work placement with the Sligo Champion. I’m with Father Ted on this one. It dragged a bit after he had finished writing about the crime bit and moved on to the punishment.

The Deliverance of Sister Cecilia was passed on to me by my devout mother and was responsible for a brief period in my life when I wanted to be a saint, or at least a nun fleeing for her life from the communists in eastern Europe.

And Skippy Dies was optimistically brought into the Coombe hospital to accompany the birth of our last child. That explains why the bookmark stalled at page 34 as the labour pains careered ahead wildly.

Some books are very dear to me which is why I bought several copies of them. If Patrick McCabe is currently bathing in champagne it’s because I was so enthused by The Butcher Boy that I bought at least five copies of his book and gave them to friends to ensure that no one would take my treasured copy. Colum McCann should be lounging on a king-sized bed covered with crisp €100 notes thanks to my decision to purchase several copies of This Side of Brightness to spread the word about its greatness.

So are you reading anything good these days? Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread is looking promising. And no, you can’t have it when I’m finished. Not unless you can trade it for a book of short stories about Scottish dragons.