Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Modest Proposal

Books can be quite personal. 

In college, I was discussing my favorite book with a friend.  He expressed interest in reading it.  So I loaned it to him.  Not long after, I discovered his interest in my reading habits extended to an interest in me.  And while that was very kind---I just didn’t feel the same.  Sometimes that’s just how it is.  And nothing can be done about it. 

So naturally, he hated me.  And not just that uncomfortable feeling that sometimes occurs when affections aren’t returned----he HATED me.  Intense.  Vile.  Nasty.  Bitter. 

I was stunned.  I’d done nothing except apologize and try to be friends.  But he turned into Crazy Man.  This reassured me that my gut had been right.  I’ve never understood how some people move so quickly from love to hate.  And never will.

Needless to say, the book was never returned.  And after being screamed at in a club after I’d merely said “hello”---I decided it was best to let the friendship (and the book) go. 

To this day, I’ve yet to find another copy.

Which is why when I was assembling the books on my new bookshelves recently, I felt a horrible pang of guilt that’s haunted me for years when I found…….

Walden.  By Henry David Thoreau.

You see----this is not my book.  It belongs to my high school friend, Kat.  She loaned it to me when I was fifteen.  We became friends because of our mutual love of literature.  Both of us had read heaps of the classics before we even got to high school.  Each year, for English class, we would receive a list of “required reading”---Kat and I had already read about 90 percent of the books on the list.  But this did not mean we slacked off in the English department----we just kept reading.  While our classmates were encountering Romeo and Juliet----we were already up to King Lear.  While they discussed The Bronte Sisters----we explored Virginia Woolf.  And while they were reading Beowulf----well, I TRIED to read it for a second time…  But I just really hate Beowulf.  Don’t get me started on Beowulf.

At fifteen, I decided to start reading philosophy.  I had questions.  I heard philosophy had answers.  And I was particularly fond of insightful and happy little quotes that could make me smile when I was having a bad day.

So I picked up some Nietzsche.

Not the best choice.  Not the cheeriest guy on the block.  I used to enjoy using my free periods to read in the school chapel.  Yes.  I read The Antichrist in a chapel.  The misogyny was stunning.  Not just in Nietzsche, but all those guys.  Philosopher after philosopher seemed to hate (read fear) women.  Aristotle.  Plato.  Kant.  Schopenhauer.  Hume.  We should be obedient.  We were stupid.  We were worthless.  Nothing.  Hateful little creatures without a thought in our heads except to be enemies with other women.  I think Kant perhaps summed it up best:

"Women are capable of education, but they are not made for activities which demand a universal faculty such as the more advanced sciences, philosophy and certain forms of artistic production... Women regulate their actions not by the demands universality, but by arbitrary inclinations and opinions.”

Of course, I understood the “context of the times”---but how is it that for thousands of years, none of them saw our potential?  These were Western Civilization’s “Great Minds”??? 

I was heartbroken and disgusted.

Kat suggested I might enjoy Thoreau.  So she loaned me her copy. 

And I did enjoy Thoreau.  He was a genuinely thoughtful and intelligent man.  Ran a stop on the Underground Railroad to help free the slaves, was an early proponent of women’s rights, met with leaders from the Native American community to help re-gain their land and freedom, and was possibly THE first environmentalist in the world. 

I loved the book.  I loved Thoreau.  From there, it all gets a little hazy. 

I don’t know exactly why one doesn’t return a borrowed book.  It’s not as if I had any intention of keeping it.  And Walden was in no danger of going out-of-print.  I could easily have purchased my own copy at the local mall’s B. Dalton bookstore for a few dollars.

And it’s not like I didn’t see her five days a week at school for several years after that.  Not like I had some massive Victorian library in my home and the book simply got misplaced under piles of lithographs and first editions.  It’s not as if she’d loaned me a set of encyclopedias and I didn’t have a car (or a driver’s license) to bring them back. 

Why don’t we return books?  It’s really not that all that hard. 

Perhaps, it’s like love---exciting to receive; more difficult to return. 

Upon my bookshelves, I count a few (less than ten, mind you) books I’ve never returned.  Three are from libraries.  My account was charged for these books.  I paid for them.  They are now mine.  Though I still feel a twinge of guilt thinking that some poor fellow in South St. Louis County will go a-hunting one day and discover that Frances Partridge’s memoirs on her days in the Bloomsbury Group will be mysteriously absent from the shelves.

Kat and I have been in-and-out of touch over the years.  She moved.  I moved.  She changed phone numbers.  I changed phone numbers.  She moved overseas.  I moved to New York.  About two years ago, we reconnected.  We even met up for drinks in St. Louis.  Grand time.  Picked up right where we left off.  I pulled out a reference to Iris Murdoch and we both agreed that The Sea, The Sea is a novel an author has to earn the right to write.

So why do I still have her copy of Walden?  It’s clearly hers.  She even wrote her name on the book. 

What is wrong with me?

That afternoon, I wrapped the book up, took it to the post office, and mailed it to her with a note inside.

“I believe I borrowed this from you maybe sophomore year.  Sorry it’s taken me so long to return.  And yes----I read the book.” 

A few days later, I got an email from Kat.  She said it was “…a much-needed day-brightener.  Not only to enjoy your honorable tendency to return a borrowed book, but also to see my juvenile underlinings and those of the book's previous, unknown owner. Thanks so much -- it was absolutely a wonderful gift from the universe in a gloomy time!”

YAY!  What a lovely note.  Friends who write beautifully are awesome!

I not only relieved years of guilt, I also managed to brighten someone’s day AND get a book back to its rightful owner.  Hooray!
THIS should be a holiday!

I think it would be the best holiday ever!  Not just about books.  It could be about anything.  A Returning Things Holiday.  You would just go about visiting people and returning things.  Visiting your neighbors.  Returning an hedge trimmer and perhaps having a bit of something to snack together.  Going to see an old friend to have a drinky-poo, catching up on who’s who and what’s what, and finally getting back that punch bowl you loaned them for their daughter’s graduation five years ago.  And you don’t have to buy ANYTHING!  No crass commercialization whatsoever.  You just return something that belongs to someone else, have a nice visit, and make them so happy to have their thing back.  What a wonderful holiday!

Who doesn’t have something they would like returned?  And who doesn’t have something lying around their house taking up space that they feel horrible about not having returned every time they see it?

It’s a win-win. 

You could also mail things back.  No Hallmark card needed.  You simply pop the thing in the mail with a hastily-written note, “This is yours.  Sorry it took so long to return.  Let’s get together soon!”  Of course, Hallmark would design a line of cards----but screw them.  We don’t need no stinking cards!

There are possibly people out there who are upset with you for things you haven’t returned.  And there are likely people you’ve avoided because you have something you haven’t returned to them.  But unlike the young man in love who absconded with my favorite book, we don’t have to let this denial of property intrude upon our relationships.  Love is not an object.  We can’t always return affections----but we can all return things.    

Perhaps, what we need is a day to celebrate friendship, sharing---and the return of things we’ve shared with friends.  They loaned their special thing to you because they cared.

I think it would be a lovely holiday! 

Let the petitions begin.

Return something to a friend today.  You’ll make them happy and you’ll feel good, too.