The Perks of the Borrower’s Debt

(listen to this while you read)

When I was fifteen, I read Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  As many fifteen-year olds who have not yet read Catcher in the Rye (and as some who have), I was affected deeply and profoundly.  I remember the intimacy of the confessions, where the you was me. I was involved and invested. I still dream of attending  Rocky Horror Picture Show and dancing the “Time Warp” in my skivvies. Like some people lent out favorite CDs, I proselytized the book hardcore.  I systematically documented my evangelization: I bought myself a copy and I gave it to my friend. I required my friend to read the book, sign his name on the inside of the front cover, and return it to me. I then gave it to another friend.  I had more than seven less than 10 signatures in it, when it never came home again.  My current copy—a gift from my younger brother who, of course, I forced to read the book—bears the inscription “word, don’t give this one away, okay? Merry Christmas and such, I suppose.”

The Fleet Foxes sing “If to borrow is to take and not return/ I have borrowed all my lonesome life.” Arguably, they’re talking about life itself, or love, or what have you.  Arguably they’re talking about things other than libraries and fines and other forms of petty theft. But in the wake of the recent uproar over an author (he-who-must-not-be-named) decrying libraries, readers everywhere have been taking up arms in the name of book lending, particularly this well-loved institutionalized version of it.

I think there’s a bigger-picture cultural phenomenon at play here, too, in the mass defense of lending.


  1.  Book borrowing/lending is actually a subcategory of Recommending.
  2. Recommending is a prominent factor in discovery and taste making, examples of which can be documented throughout social culture from blind dates to wine lists to and Pandora to and  Amazon’s “People who Bought This also bought.”
  3. The democratization of taste-making is a goal most of the bourgeoisie (guilty as charged) likes to get behind.

Of course, plenty of people love libraries. But I believe plenty of people are fighting the good fight for a more ideological reason: that is, the belief that there’s more to the spirit of writing a book than tracking sales.  Let’s ignore, for a moment, all the self-publishing e-book authors who cling too closely to DRM, which is a monster all its own.  A book should touch something within a reader in a deeply personal way, but a way that resonates with a call to action, to sharing, to discussion and community.

In a pretty insightful article over at The Millions, Janet Potter discusses how she pushed John Green’s TFIOS on her friends, much as I did, with a promise of incurable sadness, which was really just a stand-in for the indescribably profound and changing effect the book had on her—a feeling she’s challenged herself to learn to better articulate.

And here’s where I’ll leave the Fleet Foxes.  The borrower’s debt is not a regret of my youth.  On the contrary, borrowing, especially in youth, is one of the great joys of finding, and making, a self. Taking, trying on, returning or keeping—we enter into that short-lived period where we are defined by, live and die by, the things we like and love.  Okay, okay, in some cases it’s not such a brief period (see Rob in Hornsby’s High Fidelity). We curate a taste-based identity  and cloak ourselves in the things we’ve given permission to speak for us.

Have I taken things I haven’t returned? Yes.

Sorry, Doctors Alexander and Monteverde.  I’ve still got your Woody Allen and your Merlin, and if it’s any consolation, I think each time I see them of all I owe to you.

Sorry, Doctor Bennett. I’ve got a few of your craft books, but you’ve got my annotated C.S. Lewis, so I think you got the better end of the deal.

Sorry I’m not sorry, ex-boyfriend, but your book is at a thrift store. I only assume you did me the same favor.

And to you, thief of the original Perks of Being a Wallflower, I hope you give it away ad infinitum.


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