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Tuesday, 17 January 2017

When couples fight over books

How people keep, display and discard books can be the stuff of heated debate, writes Elizabeth Bernstein for WSJ

After bickering with her husband nonstop for a week recently, Amber Fallon made a huge sacrifice for love. Four books.

This represented an appeasement in the ongoing book battles between Ms. Fallon and her husband, John. Both are big readers. Both own many books. His are alphabetized in a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in their bedroom. Hers take up three of his shelves, fill their home office and stack precariously in a “To Be Read” pile in a corner.

When books start to spill onto tables and countertops, Mr. Fallon—who gives away many of his books once he’s read them—demands answers. Why does his wife need two copies of the same title? Why keep ones she’s already read? “She believes in some form of immortality by having books around,” says Mr. Fallon, 39, a systems technician.

The couple, in Maynard, Mass., reached a standoff when Mr. Fallon found two copies each of Stephen King’s “It” and Brian Keene’s “A Gathering of Crows” and “The Complex.” His wife explained that they were different editions—she had one hardcover and one paperback of each. Friends even sided with her. But she admitted she was unlikely to read both copies. And so she reached a compromise, donating four paperbacks—three by Mr. King and one by Dean Koontz—to the local library. She kept Mr. Keene’s books because he’s her favorite author.

“I am a collector and books are my friends,” says Ms. Fallon, a 33-year-old technical engineer for a software company who writes horror novels in her spare time.

If you and your partner haven’t bickered about books, you’re probably not readers.

Books are deeply personal possessions. What is a formative or essential volume to one might be nothing but clutter to that person’s spouse. Which books do you keep? Where do you store them? How do you organize them—alphabetized or by genre or color? How do you explain to a partner who has abandoned real books for an e-reader why you must keep all your physical copies? These dilemmas touch on control of space, but also on divergences between two minds. On top of all that, there’s the problem of being embarrassed by the titles your spouse has on the shelf.

“Books are about self-identity—personal history, formation, interests—and thus are markers of how much spouses accept their differences,” says William Doherty, a marriage and family therapist in St. Paul, Minn.

There are batches of books you can never give away. These come in two categories. “Influencers” are books that formed you. These include books from your childhood, college books, and that musty volume of poetry you read every day when you were 24.

“Sentimentals” are books you are loyal to, even if you will never read them again (if you ever did). These include books someone you loved who is now gone gave you, books that belonged to your grandfather or a another loved one now dead, and beloved books you read to your children. Add here books a friend wrote, no matter how bad. You can never part with those.

It’s been widely reported that after the travel writer Paul Theroux discovered first-edition copies of his books he’d personally inscribed to the novelist V.S. Naipaul, his mentor and friend, in an auction catalog, the two didn’t speak for about 15 years. Mr. Theroux later wrote about his hurt over this incident in an unsparing memoir about his relationship with the other writer.

So couples have conflicts. When Suzan French’s husband boxes up his own books to give away,” the 46-year-old New York marketing company owner surreptitiously re-shelves them. Titles that recently appeared back on the couple’s shelves include “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Venus in Furs.”

Author Jeff Burlingame’s wife, Lisa Patterson, a 41-year-old magazine editor, parks her car in the street outside their house in Tacoma, Wash., because her husband has hundreds of extra copies of his 32 books heaped in boxes taking over the garage.

Marlene Critch, 81, a retired health-information administrator from Burien, Wash., is still mourning the Merriam-Webster dictionary her husband nudged her to get rid of when they downsized into a condo three years ago. A 13th birthday present, it was inscribed: “To Honey Bunny from Daddy.”

When Ellen Jovin moved in with her then-boyfriend, Brandt Johnson, she wrote a small “e” in pencil on the first page of her books and a “b” in his, slipping a piece of paper with the initials in books she didn’t want to write in. “I saw the books as my critical property, a symbol of what I was, what I cared about,” says Ms. Jovin, 51, a communication consultant from New York City. “I wanted that identity intact.”

That was 23 years ago. The couple, now married, have merged their books—spreading them out across their home and shared office, combining sections and alphabetizing them. These days, Ms. Jovin is more likely to give away books she’s read, a habit she learned from her husband, and to see the merging of books as a metaphor for a relationship. “You turn outward, you become generous, and you don’t care so much about what is solely yours anymore,” she says.

ADVICE FOR COUPLES ON MANAGING YOUR BOOKS:
Don’t merge. If you have the space, keep your books separate. And set up boundaries regarding clutter and piles. “Books are very personal and it isn’t worth the stress on the marriage fighting over them,” says Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, a marriage therapist in Mount Kisco, N.Y., who was once called to a couple’s home to help them cull their books.

Visualize your space. It is impossible to know how much needs to go until you know how much room you have. Think about everywhere you can put books. Build the bookshelves. Then decide what stays.

Discard equally. If you’re getting rid of books, you each need to remove the same amount. Decide on an equal number of books or bookshelves that need to be cleared out.

You have final say on your own books. But please consider your partner’s suggestions carefully. Defer to the more organized person.

Involve a third party. A friend, a sibling, your mom—all will understand what books are important to you. But you’ll be less likely to argue when they tell you to ditch the copy of “Tropic of Cancer” you got from your high school sweetheart.

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