It’s a shameful thing to admit to, but I have stolen a few books in my lifetime—sneaking out of the synagogue library with a treasured volume stuffed into my trousers, removing titles they’ll never miss from my parents’ or in-laws’ house (or girlfriends’, but never real friends’). The only reason I’ve never shoplifted anything from a bookstore is my fear of getting caught—that, and my vestigial respect for booksellers, even if Waldenbooks and Borders never deserved any respect. Nor have I stolen books from a public or university library. To do so would represent the triumph of experience over hope.
Howard Jacobson’s new novel Zoo Time opens hilariously with Guy Ableman’s arrest for stealing a book from an Oxfam shop in Chipping Norton. Guy objects when the constables who pinch him accuse him of stealing:
“What word would you use, sir?” the younger of the two policeman asked me. . . .
“Release,” I said. “I would say that I have released my book.”
“Released from what exactly, sir?” This time it was the older of the two policemen who addressed me. . . .
Roughly, what I said to him was this:
Look: I bear Oxfam no grudge. I would have done the same in the highly unlikely event of my finding a book of mine for sale second-hand in Morrisons. It’s a principle thing. It makes no appreciable difference to my income where I turn up torn and dog-eared. But there has to be a solidarity of the fallen. The book as prestigious object and source of wisdom—“Everyman, I will go with thee and by thy guide” and all that—is dying. Resuscitation is probably futile, but the last rites can at least be given with dignity. It matters where and with whom we end our days. Officer.
The books I’ve released from a dusty oblivion on the shelves of non-readers to spend their remaining days among others of their voluptuous and desired kind include Middlemarch (in a nice Oxford reprinting), Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Philip Roth’s Professor of Desire (first edition hardback), Primo Levi’s If This Be a Man, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Santayana’s Character and Opinion in the United States, Gravity’s Rainbow (a girlfriend had been assigned it in college and may even have asked me to take it away: I don’t remember), my father’s read-once-and-abandoned copy of The Grapes of Wrath, and Walter Noble Burns’s Saga of Billy the Kid (I myself was a kid). There are probably more that I’ve forgotten. Stolen books do furnish a concise intellectual autobiography.
I’ve been the victim of book theft too, and I am not referring to the books loaned to friends who never returned them (bowing our friendship under the weight). When Charles Bukowski read at Santa Cruz—I was to introduce him—I asked him to autograph The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills in a beautiful first edition from Black Sparrow. He signed the book and then asked if he could borrow it to read from. I blushed—honored and humbled to be brushed by literary fame. When he was done reading, Bukowski set the volume down and someone walked away with it. I’ve never even tried to replace the book. It isn’t as good as the anecdote.
When my wife was in St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston to give birth to our third son, I escaped to the cafeteria to read The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novel about Novalis. I got up to refill my coffee, and when I returned to the table, the book was gone. The theft was the excuse I needed to buy a fine hardback edition of the novel instead.
Book theft is not a crime, but an act of disobedience against illiteracy. More writers should confess to it and name the titles they have stolen. The secret history of literature could be compiled from the lists.
Update: A friend and longtime reader of this blog writes to confess his own book theft: “I stole a first of Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck from a public library in the late ’sixties and had Gass sign it when I met him in 1994. He said, ‘Boy, I don’t see many of those.’ Pride mingled with guilt.”
Update, II: My teacher Joseph Epstein sends along a brief comment: “I'd say that the fellow who stole Omensetter’s Luck got the punishment he deserved.”
Update, III: “Ouch,” my friend says, reading Epstein’s comment. “He’s right.”
Update, IV: The incomparable Nige attributes his own days of profligate book theft, when “fully a third” of his library consisted of stolen volumes, to “stark insensibility.” I attribute it to the book-lust of youth, which youth (having not yet been let down by books that promise more than they can deliver) is powerless to resist.