In the novel The Late Scholar, the fictional mystery writer Harriet Vane says ‘It’s amazing…how perfectly honest people who would starve rather than steal sixpence, will steal books without compunction.’
A few months ago, in a literature seminar discussing Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, my professor asked the class two questions. First: ‘Raise your hand if you’ve ever stolen something.’ A few students cheerfully ‘fessed up to taking clothes and trinkets from department stores as rebellion against the capitalist agenda or something equally political. The rest of us mostly kept our hands down and our mouths shut, with a few tentative mumblings about bubblegum from the pharmacy or a cast-aside stuffed animal.
My professor’s second question was more complicated. He smirked a bit, and then asked us: ‘How many of you have stolen a book?’
We sputtered. Before we answered, we needed clarification. Did not returning a friend’s book count? Or a library book? We were literature students; we were obsessed to the point of being willing to pay thousands of dollars a year for a degree that has few job prospects and little practical application. I thought back to a few months before, when I purchased a second copy of a book I already owned just because the new edition had a beautiful cover. The vast majority of us, though we hadn’t raised our hands and admitted to theft before, realised that our shelves were full of books we hadn’t paid for – sometimes multiple copies, which we couldn’t discard because we had jotted notes in the margins or because the book had been highlighted by a still-beloved ex-girlfriend.
I started questioning myself. Our class universally agreed that borrowing or taking any other object without the intent to return it qualified as stealing. What was it about books that made them different – somehow worthy of theft, of tarnishing our otherwise (relatively) pristine reputations?
In the age of mass production, book theft seems like it should be less consequential because the cost of producing a book has dramatically decreased. But book theft remains prevalent – at Left Bank Books in Seattle, ratty paperback copies of Kurt Vonnegut are kept behind glass because they are stolen so often from the shelves, despite the fact that you can buy a used hardcover copy of Cat’s Cradle for $4.88 online. Unlike snagging a $250 textbook from a chain store to resell on eBay, stealing a copy of a Vonnegut paperback isn’t about making money.
What was it about books that made them different – somehow worthy of theft?
I started searching for the answer in history texts and, unsurprisingly, discovered that book theft is about as old as books themselves. As early as the Middle Ages, monks would store their books by chaining them to the shelves. Author Jennifer Summit wrote in her book Memory’s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern England that libraries at colleges and abbeys would secure books to tables and shelves so that they could be accessed by all without fear of theft or removal to a discreet corner of the library for solitary reading. Summit compares this practice to phonebooks chained to telephone booths – the books that we share, she notes, have to be protected in order to remain communal.
The Economist estimates that the rare book market is worth more than $500 million per year. Book theft on this scale changes the course of entire lives – even low profile book thieves are often fined thousands of dollars and imprisoned for years, and on the higher end of the scale when a manuscript curator in Sweden was discovered filching taking books from the library that employed him he committed suicide
Perhaps the most prolific book thief of all time was mid-westerner Stephen Blumberg, who came to be known as the Book Bandit after he stole 23,600 books worth a collective $5.3 million. While his title can (and should) inspire future Halloween costumes, Blumberg holds the record for most expensive bounty of stolen books in the history of the United States – books now sometimes referred to as ‘the Blumberg Collection.’ Some of the most precious objects in his library included a first edition copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a sixteenth century volume of the Bishop’s Bible. Blumberg also claimed that he put together 100 incunabula, books printed in Europe before the year 1501, including a copy of the 1493 Nuremburg Chronicle bound in white calfskin.
Interestingly though, Blumberg claims not to have stolen these rare manuscripts for their monetary value. In his 1990 trial, Blumberg’s lawyer Dr. William S. Logan claimed that his client was trying to ‘rescue’ the materials he stole from acidification in library basements. Similarly, famous bibliomaniac John Charles Gilkey became the subject of a book by Allison Hoover Bartlett, because he stole rare manuscripts of English classics to keep in his personal library. The reasoning behind these thefts is deeply familiar to most book lovers – they steal because they have a deep respect for the book as object. It’s not their passion for literature but the scale of their thievery that makes them stand out.
Why, though, do we feel a need to own these precious volumes? It’s possible that our desire to own and protect books comes from the idea that the culture we live in seems to value reading less and less every year. If we steal books obviously ignored on the shelves of local libraries and corner bookstores, aren’t we more like vigilante heroes than criminals?
The reasoning behind these thefts are deeply familiar to most book lovers… a deep respect for the book as object.
While this view of the bibliophile is appealing in some ways – the book-lover as Robin Hood, the book-lover as saviour of intellectualism and beauty – I don’t think it’s the whole story. I think bibliophiles steal books more often because we become attached to the book as a physical object. Reading is an emotional experience, and we associate those emotional moments with the physical object of the book.
LitHub writer Summer Brennan wrote about paring down her library per the instructions of lifestyle guru and minimalist Marie Kondo. She discovered that removing books from a collection is more complicated than Kondo anticipates in her guidebook:
It occurred to me that part of the reason why tackling the ‘books’ stage of the Full Kondo seems so daunting is that to many of us our books don’t really belong in the category she has assigned. They are not impersonal units of knowledge, interchangeable and replaceable, but rather receptacles for the moments of our lives, whose pages have sopped up morning hopes and late-night sorrows, carried in honeymoon suitcases or clutched to broken hearts. They are mementos, which she cautions readers not to even attempt to contemplate getting rid of until the very last.
When every attempt I make to remove a few books from my collection is a failure, it becomes hard for me to believe that book theft is just a compulsion or a political statement. Books are more than the information they contain, or the value of their binding. They are, as Brennan says, ‘receptacles for the moments of our lives’ – we scribble grocery lists and love notes on their back covers, we dog-ear pages and return to favourite lines. We buy copy after copy of our favourite books not because we need another edition, but because we want to remember and relive the emotional or intellectual guidance that the words offered us during previous readings.
With this in mind, it becomes more obvious why we feel, when we find these volumes on the shelves of bookstores or close friends, that the books already belong to us. We are so familiar with the lines on the page, with the feelings that accompanied the initial reading of those lines, that the fact that we don’t actually own the book that we’re slipping into our coat pockets becomes inconsequential.
Medieval libraries chained books to the shelves; modern libraries fasten magnetic tags to book spines and install an alarm at the door. All of this, to prove that Harriet Vane was on to something when she pinned the bibliophile as a distinct brand of thief. There are books on my shelves that I know I didn’t purchase. Someday, I might return them to their proper owner. Until that day, I’ll revel in the way they look on my shelves – rows of memories, of revelations, tucked between covers that I know well enough to pinpoint by colour and shape alone.