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.”


paul said...

There's a book on book curses: Marc Drogin, Anathema!: Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses, Totowa, N.J.: Allanheld, Osmun, 1983.

Evelyn Waugh (I think) said, Never lend a book. You will never get it back. All the books you see around you belong to other people.

steph said...

As I started reading this post I wondered if you had read Zusak's novel. And you had. Isn't it wonderful? You describe it well!

R.O. Flyer said...

I've consciously stolen one book in my life: an old paperback copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship during my first year at university (the library had two copies!)

I take it that my curse is having to spend my entire summer slogging through writing a thesis on him.

Anonymous said...

hehe... it's got a romantic revolutionary tinge to it really. i think the situationists used to encourage the stealing of books:

"What beautiful and priceless potlatches the affluent society will see – whether it likes it or not! – when the exuberance of the younger generation discovers the pure gift; a growing passion for stealing books, clothes, food, weapons or jewelry simply for the pleasure of giving them away"

(The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem)

Char said...

Book stealing does have it's virtues.

I used to take books from the school library and keep them for years. I never borrowed them, just walked out with them. They were obscure books that no one else looked for, so they were not missed. I had a particular favorite-a copy of the complete works of Chaucer in it's original language. However in my grade 12 year, my dad (a teacher there) made me return them all. We fought over the Chaucer because I wanted to keep it especially, but eventually I returned them all.

Only a few years later, the old school library was torn down and without any warning, all books not borrowed in the previous three years were unceremoniously tossed, including those I'd returned. They didn't even ask the teachers if they wanted them.

All the books my dad made me give back-returned just to be thrown in the garbage. He then had to admit he regretted not letting me steal them.

Fat said...

Char - that is so sad.

I am wondering if stealing includes the "This book belongs to ..... but I haven't finished with it yet"

I just realised Ben may be quietly compiling a list of people he shouldn't lend books to, so be careful how you answer.

Unknown said...

'There was something about fantasy novels (so it seemed) that simply demanded a courageous act of theft.'

Ben, only you could make book theft sound like an act of heroism rather than low-down skullduggery! This is what happens when you spend too much time reading Foucault!


Ben Myers said...

Hi Crisp: oh yes, it was skullduggery alright — that's what made it so exciting!

kim fabricius said...

I thought that Ben's title was metaphorical - and that the post was going to be about doctoral theses. But then not all plagiarism is theft. Or rather, plagiarism is ugly theft. But there is beautiful theft: it is called genius. Or as Eliot put it, "Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal."

But if ideas, why not books - unless we are dualists? At least good books. Though not from libraries, or small sellers. That's bad (but not mortal).

Of course when I was young, homeless, broke, and criminal on the streets of London in the early 1970s, and I stole food - and man does not live by bread alone - (cf. Aquinas: “It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another's property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need) - as I was saying, in my book-thief days, there was no panopticon and exit surveillance technology in Foyles. But there is such a frisson to literary larceny: the joy of the perusal of the shelves, the ecstasy of the find and the catch, the adrenalin-rush of the concealment, the challenge of the parka-less summer, the triumphant smugness of the sauntering escape, and the intellectual tranquillity of the long, slow read, preferably over several espressos (bill left on the table). In fact, my first prayer as I approached the tipping-point of faith was: "Lord make me pay - but not yet."

I would say more; however, I have been advised by my lawyer to take the Fifth.

Ron Short said...

I have a question that has nothing to do with this post.

I've just begun reading The Gottingen Dogmatics of Barth, volume one. Is there a volume two published in English? I cannot find it anywhere, even though the dustjacket promises a second volume.

Thanks for the help.

roger flyer said...

How did you manage to insinuate Eliot, Dickens, Hugo, Thomas of Aquinas and Augustine
in one short blurb?

What a gift of genius, you thief!

John Hartley said...

I used to be tempted to steal books, but as I've got older I have found that whenever I have finally come to the conclusion that I really should own a particular book, that book has usually started appearing in jumble sales, market stalls, car boot sales, boxes which the diocesan resources library is trying to get rid of, and various other places where it can be picked up for next to nothing.

Quite often, when I do find such a book on the stalls, I take my prize back home and then discover a tattered second-hand copy already on my shelves!

Ah, the joys of getting older. At the age of 52 I'm only a couple of jokers short of a full pack!

Yours in Christ - JOHN HARTLEY.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a good premise for a screenplay, following the Bicycle Thief, the Icicle Thief, and now, the "The Book Thief."

Ben, don't you think you could write that and donate the profits to some library?


roger flyer said...

I stole Spiderman comics as a boy.

Jane said...

MAnguel's book a History of Reading is probably the one I would take to my desert Island I think - fabulous chapter on reading in translation too -and guess what my copy has been stolen (well "borrowed" I'm sure)which is a bit sad but then it makes me think about how many books "go missing" from theological libraries across the world ... it may say a something about theologians love of learning but what does it say abotu our ethics??

Curious Presbyterian said...

To Crisp/Crisp Family:
Very nice lecture last night on "The Weirdo with the Beardo: Calvin at 500." (I was in the fourth row back).

J. Gyllenhaal said...

A Columbia librarian I spoke with one time told me that, of all subjects, religion & theology books are stolen the most frequently. He (no fan of my profession) told me to make of that what I'd like. I had hoped that perhaps he was just needling me... after reading these comments, I bet that he was right!

Ben Myers said...

That's very interesting, J. Gyllenhaal. I also talked with a librarian once about the large number of book on "ethics" that were stolen. Weird.

And just to be clear: fantasy novels are one thing; but stealing books from a research library is the Unpardonable Sin. (The only worse sin would be stealing a book from me.)

Jane said...

Worse that stealing books is definitely stealing archives. However I still haven't really forgiven the person who "borrowed" my first copy of Antonia Fraser's A Weaker Vessel - my office is in a theological library, the truth is things "go missing" - after a number of years quite a lot of them come back but not everything ...

steph said...

Quite funny reading some of the comments. My ex in my past life and I set up a second hand book shop specialising in various areas including rare books ... we reckoned we could spot the book thieves - plenty of them - but most of the time we didn't care. It was a pretty much philanthropic enterprise anyway. It grew out of our own passion so it was good to see the passion shared ;-

Daniel said...

It is my experience that Christian pastors steal books all the time. They consider any book loaned to them as a gift to them, and God forbid you ever want your book back.

Bottom line, never loan a Chsistian a book.

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