The Book Thief

“One who is always generous and always lends, his children will be blessed.”

Psalms 37:26


I was recently speaking with a friend who bemoaned the state of book lending. Perfectly wonderful people who would never think of taking a dime from you without returning it, can have a book of yours on the shelf for years without the thought of returning it. I have even purchased the same book twice to lend it out, without thinking it would ever make its way home. Someone I know warned never to lend him a book because the whole world was his library. You’d never see it again. What, this friend asked, could possibly explain this strange phenomenon?


Before we tackle this question, let’s turn for a moment to a few excerpts from a letter that Maimonides’ Hebrew translator, Judah ibn Tibbon, wrote to his son Samuel in twelfth century Spain: “I have assisted you by providing you with an extensive library for your use and have thus relieved you of the necessity of borrowing books. Most students must wander about to seek books, often without finding them. But you, thanks be to God, lend and borrow not.” It seems that book borrowing is a time worn practice that was taxing to the student. Ibn Tibbon relieved his son of this by – in his words – “journeying to the ends of the earth” to procure teachers and texts to grow his son intellectually.


But Samuel was a disappointment to his father. He did not immerse himself in learning. Of his books, his father chastises, he took no care “to know them or even their titles.” Samuel wouldn’t even have recognized his books in the hands of another. This scholarly family was not producing an heir in Samuel, thought his father. “You are still young, and improvement is possible, if heaven but grant you a helping gift of desire and resolution, for ability is of no avail without inclination…” Have no fear. Samuel turned into a fine translator, philosopher and physician.


The point is that his father understood that having books and being able to lend them rather than borrow them is an exalted position to be in when it comes to the development of the heart and mind. The verse above in Psalms describes the need of generous people to be generous, which is only fed by giving and not getting back. Generosity is a sign that children will be blessed because of the spillover effect that it engenders in the giver, which changes the life of the receiver.


If people don’t return books it may be because the borrower understands that the lender wants to share sometimes more than the borrow wants to borrow. After all, why do lenders keep lending, even to recidivists? When we are moved by something we read, we want to share the delight and adventure and provocation of it. It both validates and enlarges our own reading. What could be better than a borrower telling a lender, “I love the book you gave me. It gave me pleasure. It helped me understand something about myself. It changed my life!” Borrowers should be wary, however, of taking advantage of the lender’s delight in sharing by not returning, thus preventing the lender from lending the book out again and magnifying the pleasure.


Do me a favor, will you? When you finish reading this, return that book that you’ve had for ages or suffer the fate in this little poem by Canadian author Lucy Maude Montgomery, best known for Ann of Green Gables:


“Steal not this book for fear of shame

For on it is the owner’s name

And when you die the Lord will say

Where is the book you stole away?

And when you say you do not know

The Lord will say go down below.”


Shabbat Shalom