The Help Desk: In a divorce, who gets custody of the bookshelves?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

My husband and I are divorcing. It’s not a bad divorce, so far as these things go. Relatively amicable.

But how should we determine who gets custody of the books without having a lawyer itemize the entirety of our bookshelves? When my husband and I got married, we got rid of our duplicate copies. We almost always kept my husband’s copy and got rid of mine because he’s really good about keeping books spotless and not breaking the spines and things like that.

But just because we kept his copies, that doesn’t mean he’s entitled to keep all the books, is he? Is there a fair way to figure this out?

Delores, Maple Leaf

Dear Delores,

Congratulations on your amicable divorce! I hope to have several of those myself some day. To your question: no, your ex is not entitled to all of the books, even though they were at one point his. As every coupled person knows, you forfeit certain treasured possessions when you hitch your life to another's — books, leisurely bathroom private time, sexual mystique.

The fairest way to divide your collection is to go through, book by book, and take turns picking your favorites, like I imagine wealthier divorcees do with their pet au pairs. If your ex balks at this, follow the wisdom of King Solomon and offer to cleave each book into perfect halves. If he agrees to this plan, I decree your ex an idiot and all the books yours with the power bestowed on me by the internet. (Even more useless than half a baby is half a book; at least you can still claim half a baby on your tax returns.)

And if your ex really wants to die on this pile of books and you wish to let him for the sake of keeping things amicable, here is what I suggest: Take a few of his favorite books — books he's likely to lend out to friends or future love interests — and add some personal inscriptions that will make him deeply uncomfortable. Nothing mean, no comments on penis size or his stunted emotional capacity, just brutally honest revelations along the lines of "XXX grunts like a piglet at feeding time when he is going down on a woman," or "XXX uses the words 'irregardless' and 'travesty' wrongly and often when drunk," or "XXX got his balls waxed once and now thinks he understands the hardships of being a contemporary woman."