Friday, December 14, 2012

The books I’ve stolen

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:

       I didn’t think the word was accurate given that I was the author of the book I was supposed to have stolen.
       “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.
I’ve never stolen my own Elephants Teach, but then I’ve never come across it in a bookstore either. When I was home for Thanksgiving, though, I found a copy of Rabbit Is Rich wrapped in the dustjacket for Humboldt’s Gift. Such an offense had to be redressed as quickly as possible.

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.


J.L. Wall said...

You've assuaged my guilt -- though I somehow doubt that such the purpose of any kind of Biblioklepts Anonymous. I have a handful of books my brother was assigned in classes that I've likewise "liberated" from closets and bedrooms (Primo Levi, Martin Gilbert's "Holocaust"), and -- most shameful of all -- a New Union Prayer Book for Days of Awe ("Makhzor" is far more elegant, no?) that I once borrowed from a synagogue while helping to design a youth service of some sort.

My favorite such books aren't even my fault. Several years ago, my grandmother gave me a box of Judaica books that had been my grandfather's. Almost all of them bore a sticker on the inside cover announcing that they were not to be removed from the synagogue library.

D. G. Myers said...

JLW—Rest easy. Taking home a prayerbook—either a siddur or a mahzor—is something of a Jewish tradition. Some Jewish travelers even keep track of their stops along the way by this method.

George said...

Alvin Kernan's memoir In Plato's Cave has an entertaining story of having to pacify the Yale Coop manager after a professor had been caught bolting with a bag full of books. The Washington City Paper long ago ran a list of the most stolen books--the Bible (Gideon's I suppose) led the way, followed by prep books for the Armed Services entrance exams.

As best I recall, the one book I can definitely say I shouldn't have is The C Programming Language (pre-ANSI). My guilt at never having returned it to the former co-worker is modified or muddled by the sticker on the cover, identifying it as the property of a third person I never met.

Rand Careaga said...

For about four months in 1971 I regarded the UC Riverside campus bookstore as my happy hunting ground. When I tried to take my act on the road at the ASUC store at Cal that October I was nearly apprehended, jettisoning the Secker & Warburg paperback of "Tales of Jacob" I'd intended to make off with in the nick of time . Since I was already in exceptionally bad odor with the University of California at that time, and engaged in complex negotiations to rehabilitate myself with that institution, I sensibly vowed to mend my ways, and by the time I was re-admitted (to Santa Cruz) a year later I had actually developed the rudiments of a moral sense--better late than never--and the local bookmongers had the benefit of my honest custom ever after.

My brief criminal career has served to deprive my indignation of a certain piquancy whenever I've been stolen from in the decades since.

George said...

Well, OK, and volume of Frege. I'd have given it back, but the owner moved out of town.

Anonymous said...

i stole a copy of Ivanhoe from an Irish pub in Munich. They buy the books and decor wholesale and the books were glued together so you can't read them. This enraged me so much i ripped two apart and stole one. There are glue marks on the cover.

i also stole a book from a 2nd-hand bookshop in Durham back in 1999 when i recognised a friend's handwriting on the inside. He worked at Durham Uni till he was fired and the university forbade him to ever set foot on the premises again, and sold all the books in his office to a 2nd-hand bookshop. It was Thomas Fullers' Worthies of England. This was about 7 years after he'd been fired. i returned it to him.

Zarg Hardwaggon said...

I'm guilty of this as well. Although, I watch over my own collection like an Alkatraz warden. The colors on the spines form a mosaic that becomes utterly incomplete if one is out of place. I've learned that there is no such thing as "loaning" a book to someone. You might as well loan it to a large bonfire. I gave my sister a brand new copy of Pahhniuk's new book, "Invisible Monsters," and it is probably under the short leg of a wobbly table somewhere. I would take to stealing my friends books, if they actually possessed books. And it seems the bulk of adults I come in contact with, haven't graduated past the reading stage of young adult, and I wouldn't want to deprive their guests of drink coasters.

Jonathan said...

I wonder if Bellow's views on book theft were similar to Augie's.

Unknown said...

How does someone reconcile stealing books from a synagogue?

There seem to be different categories of book theft: (1) from a store; (2) from a friend; (3) from a family member: (4) from a public library; (5) from a school library; (6) from a parochial school library; (7) from a synagogue, mosque, or church; (8) from a government agency; (9) from God knows where else.

I wonder if there is a hierarchy among those crimes. Which is most serious? Which is most forgivable?

Where are you most likely to steal your next book?