Sunday, 28 June 2009

On stealing books

When I was a boy, I had an insatiable appetite for fantasy fiction: I had been enraptured by The Lord of the Rings when I was ten years old, and it seemed everything else I read was an attempt to recover the thrilling magic and mystery of that experience. As a teenager, I recall a couple of occasions in which I stole books. Walking calmly into the local bookstore; slipping some new novel into my school bag; heart pounding in my ears as I strolled blithely out of the store again; clutching my prize afterwards, giddy with guilt and anticipation.

There is a long and colourful history of book-stealing in the West. Alberto Manguel’s delightful History of Reading (Harper 1996) includes a chapter on “Stealing Books”. He relates the argument of one seventeenth-century authority, that “stealing books is not a crime unless the books are sold” (p. 241); and he recounts the tale of Europe’s most notorious book thief, a 19th-century Tuscan aristocrat who had himself appointed overseer of all the public libraries in France. He went about his business with great industry and enthusiasm, “dressed in a huge cloak under which he concealed his treasures” (p. 241).

Manguel observes that bibliokleptomania can be traced right back to the beginning of libraries in Western Europe, and indeed even further back, since the earliest Roman libraries consisted mainly of volumes that had been plundered from the Greeks. “Book thieves plagued the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; in 1752 Pope Benedict XIV proclaimed a bull in which book thieves were punished with excommunication” (p. 243). The Pope’s bull came too late for John Milton: his life had been wholly devoted to books, but as an ageing blind man he complained darkly that his daughters were secretly selling off items from his library for their own profit – an unbearable cruelty that added insult to injury, summing up for Milton everything that was wrong with this fallen world. The practice appears in a more positive light, however, in Markus Zusak’s recent novel, The Book Thief (Knopf 2006), an exquisite story set in Germany during the Second World War – and perhaps the most charming and poignant celebration ever penned on the art of book-stealing.

Admittedly, my own adolescent experiments in book theft were prompted not by a recognition of these great traditions, much less by poverty or need. There was something about fantasy novels (so it seemed) that simply demanded a courageous act of theft. These were stories of knights and castles and magic and fabulous beasts: a routine commercial exchange seemed altogether too tame a transaction for such lofty themes. The theft enabled me to participate more fully in the heroic world of these books: I didn’t merely want to own the books, I wanted to conquer and possess them. As another 19th-century writer, Charles Lamb, aptly stated: “A book reads the better which is our own.”

Of course, the very mention of book theft strikes fear into the heart of all librarians and all those whose lives are ordered around the collection of books. Who among us has not experienced the familiar scene: you loan someone a book; you ask them to return it in due course; the book is never seen again. It is silently absorbed into the fabric of another person’s world.

I was once visiting a medievalist friend who is a voracious book collector, and he offered to loan me a book. When he handed it to me, I noticed a faded note slipped inside the front cover, with the words: “I hope you enjoy the book. Please return when you’re finished.” My friend saw the note, and remarked: “I’ll leave the note in the cover, since it was like that when the book was loaned to me.”

If you’ve been a victim of this sort of permanent book-lending, then you might want to adopt a more vigorous deterrent strategy in future. The library of the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona (as recorded in Manguel, p. 244) was inscribed with the following cautionary words:

“For him that steals, or borrows and returns not, a book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy…. Let bookworms gnaw at his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not. And when at last he goes to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.”

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