In general, I’m a selfish pragmatist when it comes to lending books to friends, which means that I don’t often do it. Life and good intentions being what they are, you can’t expect to get them back, and you certainly can’t expect your friends to understand or remember the levels of your relative need — this book could find its way back onto my shelves in a few years and it wouldn’t make me anxious, whereas that book meant so much to me that my mind won’t rest unless we’re reunited in a few months. Better to give books as gifts and not expect to see them back.
Of course, Sandy, which wiped out a good three-quarters of my library, defied those categorizations, as I remembered recently when I noticed a pile of books in our garage that I’d deemed salvageable in spite of the storm. (They weren’t the same books I would have chosen to save, predictably — just the ones that were in reasonably good shape and felt worthy of the effort. They’re in the garage because of the toxic dirt that clings to their covers, which still needs to be wiped off.)
To say that a natural disaster teaches you the unimportance of material things is trite. It’s worth recalling, but it’s not worth dwelling on. Instead, the things I savor are the little dramatic ironies: the book given to me by an ex-colleague because it had been borrowed from the company library and he was too embarrassed to return it, having kept it long past its due date. (No chance of that happening now!) The Carol Shields novel lent me by a generous, far-flung friend, who I hope isn’t waiting for it back.
The books that survived on upper floors are both the most and the least precious titles.