Damaged Books: On Forgiving the Unforgivable

“Yes, there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the only thing to forgive?” ~Jacques Derrida, “On Forgiveness.”

When I think of “the unforgivable,” I think of my books that others have ruined. If you’re someone who, like me, takes good care of her books, I think you’d agree that it’s a sin to destroy someone else’s. And unforgivable if there’s no accompanying offer to replace them.

I first had this experience when I was a kid. An adult family friend, who I’ll call Nellie, asked to borrow one of my books, a thick paperback with a purple cover, a spin-off of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series.

I’d begun collecting the Little House on the Prairie books after I’d received a box set of the originals from my Grandmother as a Christmas present several years before. I’d since saved up money I received for my allowance and doing little jobs around the house to buy more, purchasing them from the Scholastic book orders at school. When not reading my “Little House books,” I kept my them on my bookcase in pristine condition, spines all lined up in tidy, proper order.

And so, when my book came back from Nellie damaged, I was shocked, confused, angry. I showed it to my mom. “I leant her my book,” I explained through my outrage. “And she gave it back to me like this!” I thrust it — the evidence — forward: the book I’d paid for with my own money, the book I’d leant in good faith.

The cover had been bent back and was now creased, making a triangle on the bottom third of the book, the white hypotenuse cutting through the author’s name and the picture on the front cover. The corners were chipped; the edges of the spine worn to white. But the clincher of them all was the coffee-like stain which had bled through, leaving few pages untouched. They are still warped.

There was no reconciliation; no offering to buy me a new book. I don’t even think there was an apology.

She had been careless with my book — and in my eyes had absolutely destroyed it — and then returned it to me as though it was no big deal.

Even now, I don’t understand how an otherwise responsible adult could damage something she’d borrowed from a child and not make an attempt at some kind of restitution. I was about eleven years old.

It taught me never to lend my books. Other people don’t respect or value them as I do.

Over the years, I have learned to lend my books again — judiciously — to friends, though I do not do so often. When I do, my books come back in as good a condition as when I leant them.

And yet, my books have continued to be destroyed when I’ve not leant them. A roommate’s kittens swiped an entire shelf of my books to the ground and left little teeth marks in the corner of a cover; a friend’s young daughter tore off part of the delicate spine of my leather-bound Bible. In each case, I approached both of the friends, and showed them the damage.

But in neither case were my books replaced by the supervising adults who I ultimately held responsible for my books’ destruction. No restitution, no apology, or even remorse was offered. (And yet, these were my friends!?).

I think it’s safe to say that the same kind of confusion, shock, and anger that I’d felt as a child when my book was damaged, returned to me in these experiences, though perhaps to a lesser degree.

It occurs to me now that what we consider to be “unforgivable” is probably something that we would never in a million years dream of doing ourselves.

I would never do something so damaging as folding a page back to mark my place in a book (“There are,” I recently read in a meme, “two types of people: those who use bookmarks, and monsters”). At least not one I cared about — and certainly not one that did not belong to me. If there’s something I want to highlight in a book I’m reading, I will underline it in pencil, and with a light hand. I keep the wear of my books to a minimum, while still reading and enjoying them.

If I were somehow responsible for damaging a book that did not belong to me, I would  feel terrible about it, and would like to think that I would repair or replace it.

In the case of my book with the little teeth marks in it, I had the sense that it had lost its value: I could no longer sell it at the price I would have received for it before its destruction. My former roommate thought it was negligible.

Several years, later, when working at an antiquarian bookstore, my suspicion was confirmed: I learned that a great deal of a book’s worth is based on its physical condition. I felt justified.

Books are, in fact, categorized by their condition, in an overall assessment of their quality: good, very good, fine, near-fine, and mint. (Note: never buy a book that’s labelled “good” — unless you’re looking for a beat-up reading copy.) Any markings are noted in the book’s description so as to give an accurate account of its condition. To not do so is considered dishonest. Essentially, a book’s value turns on how well its been cared for.

I keep my books in fine to near-fine condition. Few of my books are mint (I do read them, after all). But in my three examples of damaged books, they all came back in mere “good” condition.

While working at the same bookstore, my boss, an antiquarian bookseller for many years, who dealt with books of tremendous value, happened to see my damaged Bible with its half-missing spine. I suppose I’d brought it in to read during my lunch hour. Not a religious man himself, he offered to repair my book for me, to put its spine back on.

I knew that he had a lot of work to do, even though he never seemed to be in a hurry with anyone. I also knew that my Bible had very little monetary value. If I were to bring it to a bookbinder — say, one of the ones we used for our customers — I would be looking at spending more money in repair than I’d originally paid for the book. And yet, my boss was willing to fix it — a skill that few had the necessary expertise to do — and had offered to do so at no cost to me. This kind, simple, yet profound act was immensely healing to me.

I think of all of this now because, recently, I was out buying used books when I found a copy of the purple spine book, the same Little House book that Nellie had destroyed all those years before. This was the first time I had seen another copy for sale.

I think I must have recalled the healing experience of  my boss repairing my broken Bible. I suppose I thought that buying this replacement for the copy which Nellie had destroyed would somehow be similarly healing. And so, I bought it.

But afterwards, I felt that there was something missing. It didn’t make me feel any better to know that I had — finally — replaced the damaged book. Instead, I silently noted all the ways in which the replacement failed to be a “fine” copy. I had replaced what was damaged: but I had not healed.

“If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable . . . , then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear,” writes Derrida. That is, if I didn’t value my books — if I didn’t feel deeply wronged when someone damaged them — then I wouldn’t be forgiving someone when they asked pardon for the offense. I’d merely be writing off a trifle. Yes, Derrida asserts, “there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself.”

I realized that, even though more than 20 years have passed, I still had not forgiven Nellie for damaging my book. Likewise, I’d not forgiven my former roommate whose cat had left teeth marks on my book (in writing this post I was able to deftly locate it on my shelf with the first try).

Had I forgiven the friend whose young daughter had ruined the spine of my Bible? That price had been paid already by someone else. Someone who had had no part in its destruction had repaired it. It was something I could not do on my own. It was a price I could not pay.

And yet, “We can imagine, and accept, that someone would never forgive, even after a process of acquittal or amnesty,” writes Derrida.

When Derrida wrote that we can only forgive the unforgivable, he wasn’t talking about damaged books: he was talking about damaged lives. He was talking about wars and horrors and the “monstrous crimes” in the last century that I, in my rather sheltered life, have never had to experience, or witness.

When I consider this, I think in shame of my pettiness for not forgiving those who have damaged my books. None of the offenders asked for my forgiveness. They may not have even felt a sense of responsibility. And yet, I’ve felt a certain amount of resentment towards them all these years.

And so maybe it’s not so much about the offense, but a condition.

For the real damage has been the condition of my heart towards them. The less-than-good condition of my heart has been far worse than the books they damaged.

This year, I decided to give used books as Christmas presents — that’s how I found the purple spine book, after all.

And yet, in writing this post, I realize that maybe the more urgent gift I can give isn’t books. And it’s not even a forgiving heart, but a repentant one, for those who damaged my books without remorse, and thus wronged me in a way that I have deemed to be unforgivable.

“If I were a Wise Man

I would do my part, –

Yet what I can I give Him,

Give my heart.” 

~Christina Rossetti

Question: How do you deal with it when someone damages your books?