Polonius, Chief Counselor to Shakespeare’s Claudius, tends to get a very bad press. Apart from the fact that he has clearly chosen the wrong side in Hamlet v the Rest of the World, he is also universally condemned for being a pedant. If there was a contest for the fictional character least likely to be invited to a party, you could be fairly certain he would make the top ten. And yet, every time I see the play I reach the point where he is giving advice to his student son and I have to ask myself why he is so disliked. Is it, perhaps, because we don’t like being asked, via Laertes, to examine our own short-comings? Because you have to admit that much of what he has to say makes very good sense.
Who, for example, would argue with his precepts on friendship?
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
And I definitely need to listen to what he has to say on the subject of buying clothes.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
Let me tell you, Jolyon Bear would be in the audience cheering him on.
You may not think, however, that he has any words of wisdom for the readers amongst his audience. Don’t you believe it. Heed both his and my advice and take these words to heart.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
We probably all know the perils of lending books. To be fair, some people do return them, but over the years certain dire experiences, including the loss of a signed copy of the first of the Discworld novels, has taught me that I should never lend out a book. Don’t get me wrong, I frequently pass on books which I have enjoyed to other people, but these days I consider them a gift and make it clear that I have no expectation of ever seeing them again. If it is a book that I value and want to be able to return to at some point in the future I will recommend that the other reader gets hold of their copy or if we are on those sorts of terms I will buy them a copy as a present, but I hang on to my own like grim death.
During these past few months, however, when my reading time has been at a premium, I have begun to realise that borrowing books is every bit as much a peril to be avoided as loaning them out. I don’t think I’ve made a habit over the years of asking to borrow someone else’s books. I’m rather too fond of having an excuse to buy my own. But what I’ve become aware of recently is just how eager other people seem to be to force their own favourite books onto me. Truly, I have piles of the darn things all over the place.
This has been bad enough if it has been a book that I actually wanted to read. It’s frustrating as it is not to be able to get round to authors whose works I have normally automatically read as soon as they appeared without other people reinforcing what I’m missing. The real problem, however, lies with those works I have absolutely no desire to read in the first place. Before I would have skim read them and then passed them back with a ‘thank you, perhaps not quite for me, but very interesting’, knowing that I had enough knowledge of the book to be able to get away with my deception. Now that isn’t possible and yet still the books mount up. How do you say ‘no’ to someone who thinks that they are doing you the greatest favour in the world and who just isn’t going to understand when you can’t see your way to prioritising their book over and above all those that you have actually selected for yourself? It’s like telling someone that their beloved child is not welcome in your house. In fact it is probably more difficult because, if said child has previously swung your cat round the living room by its tail or de-feathered a pillow in your bedroom, Mom or Dad presumably already has a fairly good idea that a return visit by their offspring isn’t going to be particularly welcome. Not having enjoyed the last book they offered doesn’t seem to cut quite the same ice.
And, as Polonius knows, friendships can falter over this. If you suggest that you might return the book unread and perhaps borrow it again at a more opportune moment, you are inevitably encouraged to keep it because they are sure you will get round to it soon. This is, of course, accompanied by a look that implies not only are you slighting their book, but also them, their taste in reading and probably their right to exist on this earth at all.
Does anyone have an answer to this, because saying “no thank you” doesn’t seem to work? A friend of mine whose mother-in-law was constantly and pointedly extolling the virtues of an annual spring clean eventually had a wall plaque made with Mole’s immortal words
written on it and placed it where it was the first thing her adversary was likely to see as she came through the front door. Perhaps I should do something similar with Polonius’s sentiments.