What Books Have You Stolen?

Oh, don’t get huffy. Every academic I know has stolen a book from a library—kept it, didn’t return it, or deliberately lifted it. We felt ownership over the work, somehow. We felt it belonged to us. To see it in circulation was to see it sullied or mishandled. It was unbefitting that others should have it in their hands, in their rooms, in—heaven forbid—their beds. We were rescuing the book, giving it a proper home where it would be appreciated and safe. Safe from what, exactly? Certainly not theft.

Almost everybody still has a book from an ex. A smaller number have shoplifted directly from bookstores. A few, I was more surprised to discover, have even taken volumes directly from the libraries of their friends.

I still have a clothbound Fay Weldon novel I took from my college’s library at the University of Cambridge. The copy of Female Friends sits on the shelf above my home computer as a recrimination and a reminder of the crimes of which I am capable. In reparation, I’ve given thousands of dollars to that library over the years, so the guilt has had a positive effect—sort of. I’ve never quite forgiven myself for breaking the trust of the library system, but I also recall, vividly, the need I felt to have that book. I thought nobody else in the world wanted it, or would ever want it, as much as I did. I put it in my rucksack (which is like a knapsack with an English accent) and scurried out with it like the villainous reprobate I was.

Years after the heist, I became good friends with Weldon. She flew to Connecticut to give me away at my wedding, and I recently visited her in England to celebrate, a bit early, her 80th birthday. I have signed copies of all of her novels now, but the confiscated copy of Female Friends is orphaned, unsigned, and sits apart from her other books. I’ve been too ashamed to admit I stole it until recently.

Once I did confess, to friends and colleagues, they started telling me their stolen-book stories. I wasn’t surprised to hear them because I just finished reading Rachel Shteir’s The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. (I came by it legitimately.)

Shteir tells a number of fascinating stories about stealing books, including one concerning a rare-book thief, Stephen Carrie Blumberg, who stole  23,000 volumes from archives and libraries—not to sell but to hoard them. His defense was apparently the only time the insanity defense was used in a theft case. She quotes the literary journalist Nicholas Basbanes, who writes in his history of bibliomania, A Gentle Madness, that although bibliomania is “the only hobby, so far as I know, that is recognized in the DSM of the American Psychiatric Association as a bona fide disease, I don’t excuse book theft on the basis of being a disease. Had I been on the Blumberg jury—and I witnessed the entire trial—I would have voted to convict.”

What I found most intriguing was Shteir’s assertion that “Among editors, a book’s shopliftability alternated between a mark of its popularity and proof of a writer’s unoriginality. One editor who had worked in academic publishing felt ‘perverse pride’ when one of his books went ‘behind the counter’—slang for the bookstore putting a title out of shoplifter’s reach—but sneered that the majority of books were written by impenetrable theorists who themselves shoplifted metaphorically anyway. They deserved their fate.”

The example she offers is this: “Jacques Derrida bragged about graduate students shoplifting the 166-page Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs more than his lengthier works; another editor confided, adding that ‘my own conviction is that his entire method and philosophical perspective constitute a form of shoplifting.’”

English drawing-room comedies once included comments about “counting the spoons” when certain types were coming to dinner. Apparently we should also be surveying our bookcases to see what’s missing—and examining our consciences to see what bibliophilic guilt we’re carrying.

Gina Barreca is a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut.

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