Against Borrowing Books

No, you can’t borrow that book, and no, I don’t want to borrow yours either.


There is a certain tyranny to borrowing books.

For me, the reading of books—and not just books in the general sense but very specific ones—is a vital activity, one that, yes, stumbles and stutters and loses its way, but it is my progress nonetheless. Now, the choosing of my next read is, most of the time, a wonderfully open task, as I am able to pick from all the books I’ve yet to read, which is literally most books that have ever existed. Faced with such bewildering numbers and such endless choice, I rely wholly on my literary whim—that is, whichever author or genre or style or subject is doing it for me at that moment, that is what I ought to pursue, because the passion that results from inarticulate interest is how I will get through even the tiniest portion of literature’s outrageous multiplicity.

So when someone shoves some book into that precarious and improvised path, it disrupts the whole pattern by arbitrarily inserting a book that didn’t fit in with the tenuous chain forming from selection to selection—a chaining forming and informing its own development. If I’m, say, on a kick of Spanish-language novels by women, and a friend of mine just insists that I borrow and read a contemporary American writer, either one of two things will happen: either I will stick the book into my mercurial list and thus disrupt it irrevocably, or I will not read the book, it will sit dusty languishing on my shelf, pulsating and pounding like the tell-tale heart, reminding me that I still haven’t perused its pages, and as each chance to read the book vanishes in the fog of other literature, its condemnatory heartbeat increases in volume and annoyance, and pretty soon I might begin to avoid the friend who lent me the book, both to escape the requisite “Hey, how’d you like that book?” question that inevitably follows and to not face the capriciousness of his own literacy, of its random and incoherent trajectory, smacking, as I’m sure it must, of amateurishness and naivety, and eventually I won’t even see that friend in public anymore—or if I do I will go to absurd lengths to duck their notice—and suddenly I realize that I’ve basically chosen my own reading habits (as fickle and ultimately meaningless as they are) over friendship, and I don’t want to have to make that decision but if life has taught me anything about myself it’s that clearly I’m willing to make that choice, even if I don’t exactly think it’s the moral one, so that even though I’m aware of the inherent deleteriousness of doing so it doesn’t seem like I’ll stop, so just do me and you and everyone else a favor and don’t try to lend me your books.

And while we’re on the subject, No, you can’t borrow my books either. Why? Because you won’t return it. That’s why. Oh, what’s that? Oh, you’re really responsible? And super good at getting borrowed things back to their owners? Well, let me tell you a story, one that regularly (and woefully) recurs in my life: I will be working on an essay or a review, and some passage from a novel I’d read years before pops into my head, a perfect addendum to the piece, but when I go to my shelves to search among more than a thousand volumes, the book in question is missing. Missing? No, I know I own that book. It was a mass-market paperback with crinkled edges; or a hardcover purchased the first day of publication; or a reissue replete with critical commentary—whatever it is, I know I have it! Or I had it because now it is gone forever. And maybe in my mind, a vague memory will register, of reluctantly allowing a friend or a girlfriend take the book from its home and into the vast wilderness of other lives. Whomever I’d lent it to (though I should basically stop using the words “lend” or “borrow” since the final result, invariably, is an act of giving), it would have been someone I knew very well, someone I saw on a regular basis (which, because I’m sort of a homebody, means someone who frequented my house and thus would have had ample opportunity to return the book), and still those books never found their way back to me.

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Now maybe you’re sitting there thinking that I’m taking all this a little too sensitively, that probably my best course is to accept the loss of a handful of books as the necessary flotsam and jetsam of a life lived with friends and acquaintances around to borrow my books in the first place. To this, I have a few responses. First, of course, I don’t persist in harboring resentment or annoyance for the person I’d lent the books to—that part of it dissipated long ago. Secondly, this isn’t merely a “handful” of titles; it’s probably more like a hundred. And third and last: I’m broke now and have been broke for many years, so buying replacement copies becomes not only financially untenable but also aesthetically, by which I mean that it’s very difficult to spend what little money I have purchasing books I’ve already read just so I can find a particular section to quote for an essay.

And if you’re thinking that I should take advantage of a library, I’m forced to admit that I don’t like libraries. Not at all. To begin with, one of my grand ambitions is to own a personal library, which means that an institution organized around lending you books as opposed to selling you books winds up feeling like a literary tease to me. Moreover, the point, ultimately, of owning a large collection is capricious access, whenever I want, however I want—none of this “bring it back in six weeks” b.s., and no risk of suffering the wrath of the library police (I still imagine the great Philip Baker Hall’s no-nonsense library cop in “Seinfeld”). Recall the arbitrary nature of my reading progress—e.g., the sudden shifts in interest, the stumbles, the revelations, the improvisation of the entire enterprise—so a library with its due dates and late fees isn’t exactly simpatico with my messy path. To put it another way, I don’t like libraries because I’m jealous of them.

All of which means that the borrowing of books—both lending out to others and accepting loaners from others—is not a tradition in which I take part. The books I own are more than simply objects of past accomplishment, nor are they records of previous enjoyment. They aren’t trophies of intellect or imposing intimidation tactics. They are, more than anything, the history of my development as a human being and my support for my future growth as a writer. I need them around like a memoirist needs memory or a painter canvases—my books are the foundation on which I build my art, and though the groundwork is shaky, built as it was with spirited indiscrimination and extemporaneity, it is also mine, designed and erected by my own shortcomings and limited perspective. And I can’t go back and rebuild it, nor do I want to, just as I can’t amend my past choices or erase parts of myself—the one thing I can do is protect the structure of my identity, each and every brick, because unlike real buildings in real life, each brick is load-bearing, and when one is missing, even for a short time, it can all come crashing down.

Feature image: Henry Olden/

About Jonathan Russell Clark

Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub , and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. His essays have been mentioned in The Guardian,,,, Electric Literature, Word Riot, Poets & Writers, and as one of Katie Couric’s Katie’s FYI. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Clark was educated at the University of Oxford, the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, UMass Boston, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

  • H Kirsch

    I agree with a lot of this. After spending more than 25 years handselling books to people for money, I’ll listen to your recommendations but please don’t give it to me. If I wanted to read it, I probably already would have.

    I also don’t lend books because yes, as you say, they just don’t come back. And I’d rather not be angry at a friend for not returning one or even worse, returning one damaged. Its just too disrespectful.

    I do use the library though. Even if I own a copy of a book, I’m likely to read the library copy so as not to damage my own.

  • Agree with everything, and BTW I really LOVED the fabulously crafted run-on sentence in paragraph 2, was it, or maybe it was paragraph three, but in any case not many people can successfully pull off that kind of thing, but yours was really superb, and I was out of breath by the time I came to the period, so now not only do I admire your thinking process but your writing skill as well.

    And the problem with people insisting on lending you books is what happens if you don’t care for the book? Do you say so? Do you lie, thereby setting the scene for more unwanted books pushed on you? You are so right. No lending, no borrowing and Shakespeare had the ultimate word on it: Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. Or interferes with one’s own reading path.

  • basketpam

    HEAR HEAR!!! I too have become someone who does NOT loan books. Nor will I ever borrow someone else’s books, as crazy as it sounds that basically includes most libraries too. I spent my childhood in our tiny “small town” library and I consider access to that a true blessing in my life. And then, during my “poor” years during and right after college I went back to borrowing various books from the local library (nonacademic ones just to read-I was in college for the most part PRE-computer era), but then I began to notice something, I kept borrowing the same books over and over and over again. Once I discovered them at used book stores I just bought them. You see, I’m one of the odd, “weird” (according to some) people who consider my books not just inanimate objects but “friends” in a way.

    My first lost occurred when I loaned a book (The Biography of Lucille Ball) to a co-worker in the 1990s and as so often goes, after a lengthy amount of time (over a year I believe and more than enough time to read it) when I asked for it back (very nicely I thought) she denied having it and claimed she had returned it. People who do things like this don’t realize how foolish they look because they don’t know how tightly people like the author here and myself maintain our books. People like us KNOW where each and every book is at any given time and if its in our possession or not, don’t pull that, “I already returned it” excuse with me, I know better. Just be honest and say you lost it or got rid of it or whatever. Don’t turn it around on us and claim its OUR fault. I’ve never forgotten that loss and sadly, never felt the same way about the coworker again either.

    Then, I had two young girls in my life reach the “chapter book” reading stage and I felt comfortable enough loaning a few books to them. However, they both received “the speech” before I did. One of the girls was my niece (now 27 years old) and my “little sister” (as in Big Brothers/Big Sisters) (now 36 years old) and I am GLAD to say, to the best of my knowledge, returned every book I loaned them. So then I began to relax a little and I made that fatal mistake, I loaned a VERY prized, special book. I loaned (oh heaven help me here) my very FIRST Harry Potter book. I thought for SURE this family would be EXTREMELY responsible with it. The major problem though, they lived 4 hours away and we didn’t get together very often. To be honest, life got crazy and I actually forgot about loaning it until I went to read it one day. I had decided to go back and begin with book one and read the series from start to finish, unlike we all did originally, whenever the book was released. And to my horror, the book was missing!!! I honestly think I was in shock when I discovered it. The hole was there for it, right on the shelf in my library (yes, I have a library), but no book. I knew it wouldn’t be any other place so I began asking, everyone I knew that I would have possibly loaned it to. NO ONE claimed it. And then the worst possible thing happened. The family where I’m sure I loaned it went through a divorce. The 5 members of the family are now scattered to the wind and no book was ever produced. I’ve given up hope of ever getting the original back but now, for two years, I’ve been looking at used book stores (oh thank heavens they began to appear), any place I can, for one matching the rest of MY series, those very first covers. I don’t know how other people would feel but I feel as though I’ve lost a valuable family piece of jewelry, a piece of family silver. It’s awful.

    So that’s it, I’m done. NEVER AGAIN WILL I EVER loan a book to ANY OTHER SOUL. I’ve raised my right hand and made the pledge. Good old Bill (William Shakespeare) really knew what he was talking about (most likely had friends who didn’t return books either) that, (from Hamlet) “Neither a borrower I don’t like to be miserly, or stingy or mean, but emotionally I can’t go through this again in life, its just too hard. So, I just keep checking at the various used book stores I know about. Thankfully we have some really great ones near me. The best is the “2nd and Charles” (which moved into the vacant spot of Borders Books during which I was on the verge of tears my last visit, the day before they closed for good, I STILL miss it) and another more local chain called “Wonderbooks and Video”. I first discovered their very first small store during my college years at Hood. Going into one of these used book stores is like a walk through Aladdin’s Cave for me. So folks, if you know who I am, be forewarned, I may buy you a book, I may give one to you (I rarely give ones away unless I accidentally buy duplicates) but I will NEVER loan a book again, so please don’t ask.

  • Mozette

    Yes!!!! I have a lovely collection of books which my family thinks I either must get rid of (my Dad) or they ask the quizzes of quizzes: ‘which books do you have?’ (Mum and other family member and friends). However, I do not like to lend my books for any length of time – and do expect the people I lend them to remember to return them. I have lost a beloved Stephen King book (Christine) to my brother – and man, did he feel horrible about that! He told me that he bugged crap out of one guy who ‘borrowed’ it from his shelves and said he’d return it (and didn’t) and when my brother bugged him about it, the dude had lent it to his sister, who lent it to her boyfriend, who lent it to… well you get the idea.
    I also hate libraries. I’m not jealous of them – quite the opposite. I have, over the years, become very much the germaphobe when it comes to public libraries. The very idea of touching a book which has been in the possession of another human being (and exactly where have they kept that book while it’s been in their possession? I mean, has the dog slept on it? Did they dump it under their bed? Was it properly cared for before they returned it?), I just found that my last visit to the local Logan City Library set me on edge so much I had to go outside to even breathe.

    So, it’s a little wonder I’ve invested so much time and money into my own private library.

    • jupe77

      Haha! I worked at an elementary school library and you would not believe how disgusting those books were. Sometimes I even had to wash them. Yuck.

  • Mary Leonhardt

    I loved this essay. I’m a retired high school English teacher, and for my money, the most deadly thing about English curricula is all of the required books kids are given to read. It would be so much better if they were given the freedom, and help, to start establishing their own reading paths. Assigned reading tends to drive out all other reading, and many kids don’t’ even do the assigned reading. So they read nothing.

    • jupe77

      I agree with you. I think school kills reading for a lot of people.

  • Name

    When I was in grade school I loaned a book of mine to a classmate, before I even had a chance to read it. When she returned it to me, it looked like it had been put through a meat grinder. I never, ever loan a book to anyone unless I am sure I never need to get it back again.

  • Calibizaro12

    While I can appreciate your feelings and where you are coming from, I don’t really agree. On the borrowing end of things, it’s your own responsibility and right to simply decline borrowing the item. If you are on a specific literary kick, and that suggestion doesn’t fit, then simply decline the offer graciously. It’s not on your friends to remember to NOT suggest books to you. It’s your own personal responsibility to manage your conduct and reading whims. Having such a haphazard style is perfectly fine. Just don’t fob off friends because you borrowed a book you didn’t really want to read. I’ve borrowed books before, never got around to reading them, and simply explained, “Hey, sorry dude… I got so busy reading other stuff that I never got to yours. I looked at, but it doesn’t seem my speed. Sorry, but thanks for lending it anyways.” Any good friend that actually knows you will perfectly understand. If they don’t then perhaps they aren’t such a good friend anyways.

    As far libraries, even though you may not like them and resent the imposed time restrictions, that is also your own issue and not the library’s. you can renew a check-out, or simply return it and check it out again when you want it again. If you are simply too capricious for that, then simply admit that you aren’t the best borrower. It’s less the library’s problem and more your problem. Hearing people dis public libraries because of their own issues or personality quirks irritates me, simply because libraries are vital resources that offer more than just books. Especially for those with little financial means. they offer educational enrichment programs across all ages, but especially for children. They offer free computer and internet usage for those who can’t afford it and may be desperately seeking a new job, or trying to do homework. A library is more than a house of books… it’s a community center that tries to fill the needs of its community. Growing up, my family had very little money, so I didn’t get to buy books to fit my reading whims. So I borrowed them. I learned many things, and enjoyed a variety of stories, genres, and topics. All I had to do was walk through the door… after walking over a mile to the library in hot summer heat. It was worth it every time.

    I think many of us are spoiled in this day and age with so much at our fingertips at a moment’s notice. It makes me sad, because I think this actually kills inquiry and adventure. We don’t have to work for it anymore. We think we can find it all for ourselves with a Google search or two. I read a statistic somewhere when the young children of today, with the most access to information than any other generation before them, actually seeks it out the least often of any past generation. This boggles my mind.

    I’m not damning owning a personal library. I have one of my own, and I love and cherish them all. They are more than just books to me… they are my loves… my passion… but let’s be real here… most of us don’t have the income to buy for ourselves every book we may want. So we have to pick and choose our purchases, and pass over books we would actually like to read, but simply don’t have the money for. Enter in the free library. Libraries are the perfect place to borrow that book by a new author or in a topic/genre you don’t typically read to try it out and see if it’s the kind of book you’d like to own. If the local library doesn’t have it, they’ll usually happily buy it and notify you when it’s in and ready to be borrowed. A 6 week borrow time with option to renew (that’s 12 weeks… 3 months…), and a smidgen of patience is an inconsequential price to pay. And if someone can’t roll that way, then that’s fine too. Maybe they weren’t meant to read that book. There are plenty more to explore. 🙂

    • Liza Yellowbird

      Wow, you took this way too seriously, especially with regard to his dislike of libraries. You seem to have taken in personally, which is really downright weird. Get a life. Read a book.

  • Robin Martinez Rice

    Well, if I kept all the books I read I would have to move to a very big house. Over the years I made the decision to never keep a book once I have read it. I pass them all along, usually to a charity organization. But to each his own.

    • jupe77

      I do the same. I either give them to friends or family members who want them, or donate them for our big library book sale.

      I do not lend books anymore. I’m on my 3rd copy of A People’s History of the United States because of friends who never bothered to return the first two.

      I don’t borrow from friends either. One of my neighbors accused me of borrowing her LIBRARY books and not returning them (like, WHY would I borrow sometimes library books?) and then she insisted on searching my house for them! Uh… NO.

    • basketpam

      I don’t mean to make fun of this person I just read about above, I really don’t as they did say they somehow lost a lot of books and are working on replacing them but when I read three bookcases of 5 shelves each I just had to laugh, a LOT of books is an entire room and I’ve basically outgrown that. Some people think I’m nuts when I say I have a library but books are my friends. I feel SO sorry for people who don’t like to read. I can’t imagine its not the written material or the story but the struggle to read quickly and smoothly. There are a LOT of people out there that were never given the attention they should have had as children in order to read well. It reminds me of a line from the Anne of Green Gables movies when Marilla is telling Anne that she doesn’t have time for all that foolishness of imaging. She says to her, “Oh Marilla, the things you have missed!” and I agree. Those who don’t read have missed SO much in life. I would think it would be like never trying a new type of food your entire life. But what I began to say until I read what was written above is that one of the most favorite things about the house I’m in, a 200+ year old house is that I DO have an entire room to make a library. I think ALL homes should be made with one.

  • Faith Love

    I so agree on so many levels. It applies to movies and music media as well. I neither borrow nor lend anything anymore.

    When I was younger I would borrow and lend books giving time limits and keeping track of who borrowed what. When I finally got my book back (after hounding my friends for weeks), they were often damaged. I would never return a book in worse condition than I borrowed it. I would buy my friend a new copy rather than return a damaged one. Sadly, others don’t share my sense of responsibility.

    So I don’t borrow, and I don’t lend.

  • The Doc

    Maybe I should print this and laminate it and post it on the doors to my office and personal library. Even borrow the phrase “I do not lend books” and write it on the cornice alongside “I think Paradise will be some sort of library”.

    I too have misplaced books and worse, articles into the ether. The articles become very expensive to replace if you are no longer enrolled at a university, but for the books, I can think of no better retailer than Better World Books. I have no affiliation with them except for the exchange of my money for their stock, but their stock is eno0rmous

    • Ann Brookens

      I used to have quite a large collection of books. I grew up in the country in the ’50s-’60s, in a lower income household, so I held on to every book that came my way. The day my parents bought a library card in the nearest town opened the doors of paradise for me. As I got older and gained an income, I bought books at the drugstore and the grocery store and at the local bookstore. Eventually, I realized that if I would BORROW a book from the library first, I could then see if it was a book I would actually reread, which is really my criterion for owning a book. I had a rather drastic move 5 years ago and lost a large number of cherished books. I am slowly managing to replace them through Amazon used books…but some of them are irreplaceable. At the moment, I have three 5-shelf bookshelves stuffed full. I’m contemplating buying another.

  • sphinxygold

    This post reminded me of a poem “Lending Out Books” by Hal Sirowitz

    You’re always giving, my therapist said.
    You have to learn how to take. Whenever
    you meet a woman, the first thing you do
    is lend her your books. You think she’ll
    have to see you again in order to return them.
    But what happens is, she doesn’t have the time
    to read them, & she’s afraid if she sees you again
    you’ll expect her to talk about them, & will
    want to lend her even more. So she
    cancels the date. You end up losing
    a lot of books. You should borrow hers.

    • Ann Brookens

      A perfect solution! Borrow books from someone you want to see more often!

  • RYCJ

    Touchy…touchy…and an avid reader and book lover for sure. 😉

    I love books too…collecting them like many collect pennies. I don’t like loaning MY books either, despite this huge reading advocacy I’ve got going. Long story there, with the short of it being, to the contrary, books are more economical than the running myth.

    Shave desserts off the grocery bill and whaala… you’ll have a healthy library in no time. (I mean, even Free Libraries sell used books (HARD COPIES too) for a few bucks a book!) This alone not only trims down the groceries, but hones down that yoga or gym budget as well, not without mention how healthy reading is for the mind.

    Books make for great wall decor too, for anyone considering what to do with all the books. Line every wall in the house…and whaala another expense… and time consuming ‘how do I jazz up this place’ decision out of the way.

    Books make for great conversation, which btw, I laughed and laughed about that “…I don’t like libraries because I’m jealous of them.” HaHa… I am too. I long to build a library to at least the million book status!

    • Michelle Fidler

      Whaala must mean Voila!

  • Kindle readers can do

  • Karen

    If the people who are guilty of borrowing books but not returning them are truely friends then won’t they understand if you explain to them that you need to have these books on hand for research and referencing so yiur policy is never to loan them.

  • Reem Selim Fakhry

    I completely agree. The one time I broke my own rule and allowed a friend to borrow a book, I was heartbroken. The book was returned almost 2 years later, dog eared, highlighted and written in. It was awful. I gifted it back to the borrower and bought a new one for myself. Never again!

  • Brian Loon

    just checking to see if this is a free blog

  • Brian Loon

    It is.
    Just like to say that I reached an age one year when I looked around at my ‘library’ of books and videos and wondered why are they all there. I have never read a work of fiction twice. So, I threw them all out…in a manner of speaking. I figure if I really wanted to read a title again I could borrow it from a library. Sadly I do have a shelf full of books that are waiting to be read. Some of which friends have lent to me others that I cannot refuse from a market stall.
    One other thing I have learned of recent times is to never completely finish a book if you are not happy with the story for whatever reason. Sometimes the first page turns me off . Sometimes t5wo thirds of the way through I give up. There are just too many other good reads in the world and not enough time.

  • Ann Brookens

    What a perfectly lovely essay! I agree with many of your thoughts. I have made the mistake of lending expensive books to friends who put off returning them until one of us moved out of town. And didn’t return them first. Currently, I only lend books I don’t mind replacing…although I just recalled that three months ago I loaned a keeper to my daughter-in-law. (I think I can steal it back next time I babysit my grandson.)

    I’m sorry, I COMPLETELY disagree about public libraries. They make it possible to read everything I’m interested in without spending a fortune on new books. When I decided to research fireworks, I borrowed 8 books, read half of one, scanned four others and returned them all after two weeks, finished with the subject of fireworks. I do this sort of thing periodically. Or I will decide to read everything a certain writer has published. I may own several of my favorites but I don’t need to own the others. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that I don’t have to finish every book that I begin to read and I don’t have to own every book that I finish reading. This has been liberating. Now my personal library is made up of books that I love and reread.

    And the ones that I picked up at my library’s annual Buck A Bag sale and haven’t read yet.

  • I’ll disregard the actual argument (because it’s pretty silly) and just say that this: ” because the passion that results from inarticulate interest is how I will get through even the tiniest portion of literature’s outrageous multiplicity.” Is really bad writing.

  • jcarpenter

    I had a student borrow a book for her mother to read while visiting over a long weekend; mom kept book, never returned it. Student eventually replaced it, yet it was autographed by the author (Many Waters, by Madeleine L’Engle) :?(

  • InfernoFire

    I love libraries, they are one of my safe zones! Sometimes I am not sure if I am gonna like a book and dont want to spend the money on a book if I am not gonna like it so I borrow the book out first. And you can always renew a book if you want more time.

  • Holly Olstad Ristau

    As someone nearing retirement, I have needed to pare down my belongings to move to a smaller space and the first thing on the list is books. I have 7 bookcases full, many signed editions and I will probably never read them again. I will not have room in my little one bedroom apartment, but honestly, I don’t see a need for them when I can get a copy from a library, often instantly and quicker than I could find a copy among my books by going on line. Audio books have become a staple in my life, but I’m not an e-book fan, so tend to use physical libraries to get books that are not available by audio. As far as lending my books out, I like to know that a book is being read, rather than gathering dust on my shelves. Reading recommendations from friends has broadened my interests exponentially. I never would have picked up those books on my own, and have found some of my very best reads by reading books lent to me by other readers. I’m not sure how a literary critic gets to choose only the books he wants to read, but I would question his opinions if all he reads is the things he likes to read, and he’s not even open to recommendations of friends.

  • Michelle Fidler

    I used to lend books to a co-worker but one time she got the book wet. She had it in her tote bag with a bottle of water. That disappointed me. The book was a paperback and I’m not even sure if I had read it yet. I use the library (and am there now as I don’t own a computer), but it is nice to be able to keep your books and not have to return them. The library is good at getting the latest books, though. I have lots of used books that I got at the library book sale.

    Once I loaned a book to a friend and never got it back. She said that she had returned it, but I know she didn’t. I wouldn’t want someone to dogear the pages in my books since I use bookmarks.

  • Ray Janikowski

    Wonderful!! I love this essay.

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