Break-ups and Book Etiquette

A few weeks ago, I received an email from my ex out of the blue.


I believe you may still have my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane? I’ll trade you for one Super Sad True Love Story.

After searching through my collection, I realized he was right: there was the Neil Gaiman novel tucked into a pile of unshelved books in my office. And I had completely forgotten about the moment during our nine-month relationship when I had recommended that he read Gary Shteyngart’s masterpiece.

I would have responded cordially and returned the book with no questions asked...but one thing stopped me.

My ex was making this request a YEAR AND A HALF after we broke up.

A ton of questions ran through my mind: Did he deserve this book back? Was this just a test for attention? We weren’t friends, so what did I owe him? Could I sell or simply keep the Neil Gaiman book? Would these novels have bad mojo attached to them after being in my ex’s clutches for so long? And was the Shteyngart worth giving my (apparently still clingy) ex my new mailing address?

This got me thinking about the rules and etiquette when it comes to break-ups and shared book collections.

It’s time to establish some ground rules and good practices so we can preserve our books (and our peace of mind) during a split.

Be honest with yourself about your shared collection.

Let’s face it: people get weird when a relationship ends. No matter how amicable the split may appear on the surface, sometimes one party or the other will passively or aggressively sabotage something. This may take the form of claiming certain books you know to be yours (you bought them before you even met!) or writing his or name inside the cover, or trying to sell the books to raise money to move out, etc. If you live together, splitting up all the stuff can get awkward and also really, really sad. Embrace the awkwardness and sadness. Recognize what you built together, breathe, and grieve over the fact that some your book collection...won’t be reconciled. But hey! Look at what was achieved during that time--you introduced your partner to The Name of the Wind series, and your partner showed you how awesome Murakami is.

Set a time limit to return books to each other.

There’s a weird belief regarding the end of relationships: take the length of time you two spent together (six months, three years, etc.), divide it in half, and that’s supposed to be the “allowable” amount of time you can grieve over that relationship. After that, your friends and family can refer you to extra resources such as therapy or one of those happy adult camps. While I don’t necessarily believe this is true--let’s face it, some relationships are intense and life changing and wonderful and you can’t force a heart to heal--you do need to set a time limit on book returns. Think of it as the Librarian of your Emotional State. And the Librarian is firm about the rules. The sooner those items are returned to each other, the sooner you can be out of sight, out of mind and embrace the healing process. Let’s say: all items should be returned to the owning parties within six weeks. Otherwise, it’s off to the thrift store, auction, or storage.

Try not to burn the books.

This is advised for the sole reason that destroying the property can have legal, financial, emotional, and physical complications. So try not to burn the books. Don’t punish the kids. Don’t go all How Stella Got Her Groove Back on the living room shelf. There’s one “but” for this, however, and that’s if your person cheated, robbed, or in some other way harmed you. Try not to set anything on fire, but yes, a little bit of knocking over the knick knacks is fine--just ditch the books and get out of that toxic environment as fast as you can, and don’t even give that person the satisfaction of one last glance over your shoulder. You are better off without him or her. 

Make sure you get other books you loaned out his/her family or friends returned to you.

At the very beginning of the split, you should reach out to mutual friends or your partner’s family members to whom you’ve loaned books or other items as soon as possible. I know this sounds paranoid, but the “side choosing” is imminent, and you could be deleted from their Facebook friends list before you realize it’s too late. Plus, you’re going to have to engage in the “here’s why we broke up” conversation, anyway (which is the worst). You may as well recover what you can--and they should understand why you’re asking for your things back. It’s a reasonable request. But don’t feel like this is mandatory. A general rule of thumb: if the book you loaned was going to be donated to a library one day in the future, it’s not worth the chase to recover it. Consider it a parting gift.

Assess inscribed books on a case-by-case basis.

Ooh, inscribed books are tricky. Time to bring out the tissues and turn on some Fleet Foxes, because you’re going to get teary-eyed. Maybe. But some emotional reaction is bound to happen when you stumble across a book that was compassionately inscribed by someone you once loved. Relationships, no matter how great or how awful, help us personally develop and realize things about ourselves that we could not before we met that person. When people buy books for loved ones and take the time to write a message in the front pages, it’s usually because that book holds a certain significance for the recipient. So hold the emotional gut reaction in check in those raw days following a break up and try to assess whether you want to keep the read. Review any inscriptions by asking yourself: will this book continue to hold a special place for me as a reminder of my personal growth at this time? What kind of value does this book have for me, and will its value increase as I discover and grow more? I, for one, have a few books gifted to me by wonderful men and women I loved. I enjoy reading those inscriptions years later because it reminds me of who I was at that time and place. My current partner doesn’t feel threatened by a signed book, and neither should your future partner.

In the end, I mailed my ex’s copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane back to him, with no return address on the envelope, and a short but sincere note that told him to keep and enjoy Super Sad True Love Story.

I hope you find a loving, respectful partner who treats you the wonderful way you deserve, and I hope you never have to experience heartbreak. Breaking up may feel like the end of times, but trust me: it won’t be. And if this split involves your literary collection, I hope these insights help guide you through smoother waters.