Borrow That Book!

  • By Anne Cassidy
  • July 8, 2021

With these savings, I can’t afford not to…

Borrow That Book!

My library has recently begun to include on its check-out receipts the money saved by borrowing books instead of buying them. I stockpiled $14.55 when I scored A Month in Siena, a memoir by Hisham Matar, and $28 when I took home David Sinclair’s Lifespan: Why We Age — And Why We Don’t Have To. That fact alone probably increased my lifespan, or at least plumped up my wallet.

According to the library’s calculations, I’ve saved $1,012.85 this year — and I have almost six months to go. If I keep borrowing at this rate, I will have socked away more than $2,000 just by using the library.

I know it’s funny money, a marketing ploy, and at first, it raised my hackles. After all, living writers need people to buy their books, not rent them. Borrowing books may save money for readers, but ultimately the whole system collapses if not enough people purchase the books they read.

But eventually I came around to the practice. True, it makes books seem like a sack of groceries, but it’s about time someone put a dollar value on the service libraries provide.

Think about it: I can walk into my local branch, take potluck in the new-nonfiction section, and come out with a book like Sinclair’s, with its amazing and well-researched claim that aging is a disease that can be cured. If you decide to practice some of his lifespan-enhancing techniques and actually live to meet your great-great grandchildren, well, I’d say that’s worth at least $28.

Or I can watch Edna O’ Brien in Ken Burns’ Hemingway documentary, decide she was the best part of it, and immediately indulge a new passion for her work by plumbing the library’s Mc-O fiction aisle and leaving with an armful of O’Brien novels. It would cost more than $100 to buy all of these — if I could find them.

On one level, of course, it’s impossible to quantify the knowledge, wisdom, and fellow-feeling we derive from books and deep reading, which author Maryanne Wolf calls “brief, luminous glimpses of what lies outside the boundaries of all we thought before.”

But we are forever putting price tags on the precious and invaluable — childcare, chocolate, human life. And those “brief, luminous glimpses” must live inside a book, which must be printed, bound (or otherwise produced), and paid for.

Speaking of which, I originally borrowed the book in which Wolf penned that phrase. Though I did so before my library began printing the savings, I can tell you that the insights I gained from Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World are worth at least $15.99 (current paperback price) and ultimately prompted me to buy the book — which using the library frequently does.

I assume the library’s new practice helps shore up its value in a time of limited funding. And it certainly seems a valuable service to provide regular patrons. But it’s preaching to the choir. Why not promote the totals on billboards, display them in lights for all to see?

Or, since many readers use the library as I do — as a way to take potential books out for a spin before committing to them permanently — it could also list the amount of shelf space saved.

My house is so full of printed matter that if I purchased every book I read, we’d have to move. Had I known I could’ve picked up 96 cubic inches by borrowing Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence instead of buying it, believe me, I would have.

But these are quibbles. Learning what I’ve saved is good enough for now. As for what I’ve gained — the knowledge, the perspective, the shivers down the spine — those are, in fact, incalculable.

Anne Cassidy has been published in many national magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. She blogs daily at A Walker in the Suburbs.

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