Deep Theological Question #6

(Do you remember this series? If you don’t, keep in mind that these questions are both deep and theological in the same sense that the Sahara desert is a water-slide park.)

Deep Theological Question #6: Is it sinful to read a library book while you’re sick?

I’m not talking about sneezing on the pages — I just mean, to turn the pages with your germy fingers and breathe on it in the normal act of reading.

It occurred to me this weekend while just about everyone was down for the count that maybe reading a library book was the height of selfishness, although to be fair, the book was in use before I knew anyone was contagious.

The book has some time before it goes back. If I return it on Tuesday just before closing, it won’t be reshelved until Wednesday morning, meaning it’s unlikely that any germs should have survived. But I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of treating others to a version of the weekend we’ve just had.

(BTW, if anyone knows a good technique for sterilizing a hardback book with that plastic library-type cover on it, the comment box welcomes you and so do I.)


  1. jaed

    Google informs us of various cold-virus facts: it survives for a shorter time than influenza virus. Flu virus can survive up to (est.) 48 hours on objects. Viruses in general survive longer on nonporous substances like plastic than on porous ones like paper.

    Conclusion: Finish reading it a couple of days before it will be reshelved, and wipe down the plastic cover with one of those antibacterial wipes before you bring it back, and I’d say your risk of transmitting anything to anyone else is minimal. (For extra credit, wash hands often while reading.)

    I realize this is not a very theological answer. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But I do think it’s an example of a thorny question because we’re dealing in probabilities and risks here, and those are hard to evaluate.

    What I think you’re really asking is, is it sinful to take a small risk of causing someone harm? Which can’t be answered without some notion of how small the risk is – if you take an absolutist position on this, you start thinking “Am I required to kill myself if I come down with a cold, because otherwise I might touch the mailbox, and then the postman might come and also touch the mailbox, and pass on a cold virus to some little old lady who is already ill and she could DIE just from my selfish action of touching the mailbox?” Which is insane, because it has lost all sense of proportion. We’d like (well, I’d like) to draw a clear line and say that endangering others for our benefit is never acceptable, but when we’re dealing with probabilistic dangers that leads us to craziness.

    Maybe the sense of proportion is the key here. How great is the risk to others, and how large is the benefit to you? Is it s specific risk or a vague “something bad might happen”? Etc.

    1. Philangelus

      Ooh, thanks — I didn’t realize paper wasn’t a good medium for holding bacteria. I can definitely wipe down the plastic sheath for the book before it goes back. I was afraid I was going to be instructed to microwave the thing on low for thirty seconds. ๐Ÿ™‚

      If we killed ourselves when we got a cold, the funeral director would still have to touch us, and so would the police, so it wouldn’t really solve the problem of contagion. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I like how you put it: at what point does the small risk to someone else become a cavalier attitude about someone else’s behavior?

      1. jaed

        That reminds me of a short story by Joe Haldeman, I think it was, with an alien culture where it’s considered rude to say “No”. Instead, when you want to say no, you make up a little story that starts with “I die”, then follows a logical path (such as “my body falls in the river and rots, and contaminates the city water reservoir”), and ends ritually with “All die. O the embarrassment.” This is understood as meaning “No”. Extra points are given for creativity and plausibility of disaster.

  2. Ivy

    The old trick for baby or premie items that are to go to charity in the winter is to wrap them up and leave them in the cold for a few hours (I use my car for this). Germs and bacteria can’t normally survive the cold.

    1. philangelus

      I like this idea. The car is in the garage, but I could certainly put the book on the front steps or in the freezer.

    2. cricketB

      Same with dust mites and, I’m pretty sure, head lice — not that the woman in charge of lice at the school would accept anything other than bathing everyone and everything in heavy-duty medication three days running. Lice respect elbow grease.

      1. cricketB

        From Freezing Lice and their eggs on inanimate objects (e.g. toys) may be killed by freezing temperatures. Objects that cannot be heated in a clothes dryer may be placed in a freezer (or outdoors if sufficiently cold). This treatment may require several days to be effective, depending on the temperature and humidity. Such treatment would rarely (if ever) be required.

        That’s still less than the two weeks it takes to starve them.

  3. capt_cardor

    To get back to your question about it being sinful to read a library book when sick…I checked online and according to St. Kindle and St. iPad… it is.


  4. AnotherFaceintheCrowd

    Only if you have measles. There aren’t a lot of diseases that can pose serious risk of contagion via paper. Hepatitis B would be another excellent one but that requires bloodshed. One hopes that a bloodied book would be replaced as damaged…

  5. the brother

    spray the book with lysol, then leave it out in the cold for a few hours, wipe the cover with a moist towlette (preferably lysol brand with antibacterial features), then take it outside, put it in the grill and set it on fire, collect ashes and return to library with a “donation” for them……

    1. philangelus

      That’s Deep Theological Question #7, Is it okay to willfully destroy library property with the full intention of making it up to them afterward?

      If I’m going to do that, I’ll just keep the book. Or were you insinuating something about the quality of the books I select? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. jaed

    And are you required to first check whether the book is in print so the library can get another copy?

    Also, on a theological note, I at least consider burning a book to be unambiguously sinful. Far better to keep it, pay the library for it, and run the risk of getting a cold from it at some time in the future. ๐Ÿ˜‰