On returning borrowed books

The first week of March has been designated by The Inter-Global Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Cartoonists as ''Return That Borrowed Book Week.'' It's probably intended as a sort of joke (I think): ''to remind you to make room for those precious old volumes that will be returned to you, by cleaning out all that worthless trash your friends are waiting for.'' Why cartoonists? is a good question, although the week they're sponsoring may not be as odd or laughable as it seems.

I think of books I've borrowed - and lent out - down the years, and if the occasion so noted makes others likewise consider, well, we just might come out even. Are there any books on my crowded shelves that might not be mine, but in fact belong to some other impetuous lender who never for a moment doubted I'd made scrupulous returns?

Usually I'm meticulous about such matters, but even I can slip up, so let us see. Offhand, nothing not my own murmurs accusation. I believe Jo gave me the collection of short stories from The New Yorker (which I never did finish). Didn't she? She was always insisting she hadn't space for one more volume, but that didn't stop her. She'd lend or give a couple to me, saying that forever wouldn't be too late to return them.

This one on houseplants definitely belongs to Nancy. I don't feel any qualms about retaining it, because she's still holding my beautiful book on wildflowers. Maybe we can get together and exchange - or else make a definite trade. Come to recollect: I'm sure she doesn't remember my lending her Robert Ruark's ''Something of Value'' a few years back. We were discussing the relationship between generations that day, and I pushed it on her. The size of the book put her off, obviously, but after all, she was the mother of our first grandson.

There's a space on the shelf, with the usual amount of dust, where Chard Smith's history of ''The Housatonic'' used to be. It was part of that famous depression series ''Rivers of America,'' and is something of a collector's item today. I know who has it. He's a good neighbor, but every so often I bite my tongue so as not to mention it. He regularly mentions how much he's enjoying it, but he's a slow reader and am I in a hurry? Since I do know where it is, I suppose the river can take care of itself.

It was not always thus. Once I graciously let a young football star borrow Edith Hamilton's ''Mythology'' - just long enough for him to cram for an imminent exam. I told his mother, another neighbor, there was no point in buying an expensive book for her high school tackle, who'd perhaps never open it again, once the test was taken.

My ''Mythology'' was only a cheap paperback. But all of a sudden I needed it almost every time I sat down to write. To double-check on references like ''Exactly who was Pygmalion?'' Or: ''Was it really Clytie who became a sunflower?'' Or: ''What was that bit about Sirius, the Dog Star, and where was he in relation to Orion?'' Finally I asked friend Donnie's mother how he'd made out in his finals. He did fine, she said, earned a B-plus. Then was he finished with the Hamilton book? Oh, yes. Didn't he return it?

When Donnie eventually returned my paperback it looked as though the dog had been using it for chewing practice. Except they didn't have a dog. Its back was broken. It curled like a tidal wave. (Maybe it dropped in the bathtub?) I realize that today's books have a planned obsolescence, and that glue gives out - but this was ridiculous. Pages that had dropped out were haphazardly restored. Like: Page 2 was hiding between Glaucus and Scylla and 309 was inserted beside Endymion.

I made a mental resolve never to lend another book to a Rah-Rah-Rah-Team hero. Give if you must, but don't lend, I told myself. A mind is an awful thing to waste, yes. But a beloved book, however cheap, deserves respect, too. Still, I went right on, as most book-lovers are apt to do, sharing my wealth with other seekers after light. My precious Robert Frost collection went out the door with another friend. He only wanted to memorize one piece: ''Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.'' He was to address his Building Trades Union, and that poem was to be his closing. Quite frankly I couldn't envision him - a King Kong hulk of a man - enunciating about the little horse giving his harness bells a shake. But I applauded his ambition, and was somewhat flattered that he came to me to discuss it.

How it went over I never did hear. ''But I have promises to keep,'' I kept hearing him echo, however, as he left the house with my book in his pocket. He took it less than literally, because a year later, when I learned the family was about to move, I had to go after my book. Just a day ahead of the movers I rescued Frost, and there was a bit of scrounging to locate him in the already crated contents of my friend's den. ''I still have 'miles to go before I sleep,' '' he ruefully acknowledged.

What else? I've gone up and down the shelves (there's no real library order to my library, but I can put my hand on any book I want in a minute) and it seems to be in order. Lovingly I touch the red leather cover of the first book I ever bought - Longfellow, when I was 16. The library grew slowly, which was good. I got to know intimately, reading several times, every book that came along. ''Gone With the Wind,'' ''The Citadel,'' the books on nature, on Rome and Florence and Greece. Homer . . . Montaigne . . . Millay. . . .

What's this? Oh, dear - Maud's prose version of the ''Divine Comedy''! How have I slipped up on returning this? Well, tomorrow I'll drive over. And, come to think of it, she might be nudged to return my ''Don Quixote.'' I wonder, did she ever truly plow through?

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