Fisticuffs Over the Care and Keeping of Books

My boyfriend and I don’t get into many fights that devolve to yelling — he’s too relentlessly logical, and I’m too passive aggressive. But this week we had a doozy of an argument, and it started with my books.

I wouldn’t call myself a book purist. I buy most of my books used, and I don’t make any special effor to protect covers or inside pages. I read while I eat lunch, frequently dripping salad dressing or soup on the pages. I don’t collect first editions, and I don’t treat signed books more carefully than ancient paperbacks. I treat my books gently, but not reverently.

The boyfriend, on the other hand, makes absolutely no effort to take care of his books. He’ll toss them in a backpack, then throw a full water bottle right on top, bending back covers or cracking spines. He uses pieces of Kleenex for bookmarks, and has no qualms about bending spines. For him, books are entirely functional — if you can read them, the condition is irrelevant.

(When I ran the idea of writing this post by him [as a kind girlfriend does], he also told me to emphasize that “to fetishize books as a commodity is to disrespect them and one’s self via objectifying their personal value to the reader.” He also knows that makes him sound pretentious.)

I can see his point. Books are meant to be read and loved, like good toys or a favorite blanket. Books are meant to be shared, to be passed around, to be shoved into the hands of friends with the insistent note, “You have to read this!” And inevitably, each reading leaves a book a little bit worse for wear. That’s how it works.

The problem, and the source of our fight, was that I’m tired of getting back my books — many that I haven’t read yet — with smashed covers and mutilated corners. They’re still readable, of course, but they’re coming back to me in significantly worse shape than when he borrowed them. There’s damage that comes from everyday reading, and there’s damage that comes from neglect. I love my books, and I want to see them cared for even when they’re not with me.

As our fight escalated, he emphasized that in this situation the Golden Rule applies: “Do onto others [and their things] and you would have them do onto you [and your things].” If he doesn’t care about the condition of books, then why should I? He’s not treating my books any worse than he treats his own, so what’s the problem?

For me, a more careful rule applies: Treat other people’s things better than you would treat your own and try to return them as close to undamaged as you can. If you are using something that belongs to another person, it should be treated with respect as a measure of respect for the person you are borrowing it from.

Hence, our disagreement. He didn’t think he was doing anything wrong (despite my repeated reminders to be careful with my books!), while I thought his damage to my books reflected a bigger disrespect for me. It’s funny how fights escalate, isn’t it?

Is there a world of book borrowing etiquette that one of us is missing? What do you do if you damage a book on loan from someone else — offer to buy a new one? Promise to be more careful next time? Pass it along to someone else and pretend you didn’t crack the spine? Am I being overly sensitive and possessive of my precious books? Is he being an inconsiderate book borrower?

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