How to Steal a Book

A couple of weeks ago, I dipped back into Larry McMurtry for his comments on book collecting. Along the way, I noticed he’d confessed to being a book thief in high school.

Let him tell it:

In my senior year, by then obsessed with books, I stole a few from the high school library, mostly very cheap editions of books that were supposed to be classics: Addison and Steele, for example. The teachers observed this but they didn’t stop me. I was a kind of special case. While on our senior trip to Colorado City the teachers crept into my room and took the books back. Nothing was ever said about this, but I felt a little better about myself when Susan Sontag [above] told me that she had sometimes taken a bus from North Hollywood to steal Modern Library books from the great Pickwick Bookshop, on Hollywood Boulevard.

There was a time when, like Susan, I had to have books.

The lesson here is never tell your secrets to Larry McMurtry.

I’ll tell mine here. I, too, have stolen my share of books, if we’re defining theft as a failure to return them to the library. I’ve also paid enough in fines for late and lost books that at least one library should be named for me. But I can’t honestly say I’ve paid all the fines for all the books I’ve failed to return.

When I was twenty, I was obsessed with J.D. Salinger. I bought and read everything from The Catcher in the Rye to Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. And then I came across The Complete Uncollected Stories of J.D. Salinger, a pirated edition of the author’s early work, in the stacks of a university library.

Back in the 1970s, somebody had rounded up Salinger’s published magazine fiction, organized it into two slim volumes, and distributed the books at a price of $3 through a bunch of San Francisco bookstores. Salinger’s agent called the FBI. A sting operation was set up. Honest to god, over previously published short stories. And it failed. The FBI agents were at lunch when the man who was violating Salinger’s copyright materialized with a stack of books at the bookstore under surveillance. The man was never caught.

I knew of the existence of the pirated Salinger and was shocked to find both volumes on the shelf of an otherwise reputable university. I checked out the books, and I still have them. Not returning them has become a point of principle: we can’t have our institutions of higher learning trafficking in contraband. Weak, I know.

The Guinness Book of World Records and the Bible are said to be the most frequently stolen books, which tells you something about the human compulsion for standards.

Librarians on the internet say that the books most likely to be stolen from a library are ones people don’t want to be seen reading, and/or books that have high utility. So books on how to grow pot or cook meth. Sex manuals, erotic novels (especially of the S&M variety), and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. Books on lockpicking and militias. Test prep and auto repair manuals. The Sacramento Public library purchased 455 copies of Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery volumes, only to see patrons walk off with all but 71 of them.

The book most frequently stolen from the San Francisco public library is Liberalism is a Mental Disorder, a 2005 effort by the conservative radio personality Michael Savage (he later become one of the first public voices to endorse a Trump presidency). On release, the book enjoyed three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and it has been routinely filched from the San Francisco library ever since, presumably by haters rather than fans. San Francisco, after all.

Bookstores have different problems. Fans of the anarchic novelists Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and William S. Burroughs pride themselves on lifting their works. Young white males are apparently the most common book thieves, and they gravitate toward graphic novels. In Toronto, the market for Haruki Murakami is strong enough that thieves swipe his books from new bookstores a whole shelf at a time.

Vintage/Anchor Books, momentarily forgetting that its business depends on the sale of books, a few years ago congratulated its authors for making a list of most stolen books:

If the New York University library is any indication, the theft detection devices at your library’s exit are next to useless. If you were to walk out of your branch with a rare first edition in your backpack, you’ve only a 20 per cent chance of triggering the alarm and, in the event you are stopped, an “oops, I’m sorry,” will probably get you off the hook. Easier than robbing banks, and potentially more lucrative. That’s an observation, not advice.

I’m not exaggerating the potential here: a librarian and a rare bookseller conspired to steal books and other rare items worth $8 million from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. They got away with it for two decades. The bookseller would tell the librarian that he had a customer for, say, Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and the librarian would smuggle it out and share in the $95,000 purchase price. There’s a good story on the caper here.

Of course, stealing books is not as glamorous as robbing banks but it seems to be climbing in criminal stature. John Grisham’s 2017 novel Camino Island is built around the fictional theft of five rare F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from the Firestone Library at Princeton University. It topped both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists and did well enough to spawn a successor, Camino Winds, released a few months ago.

Grisham’s book is ambivalent towards book thieves. He is especially indulgent when they’re stealing from large, rich institutions. That’s a slippery slope, of course. Some may see Grisham himself as a large, rich institution, and Grisham is dead against anyone stealing from him. Last week he was one of a dozen authors (including Scott Turow and Lee Child), who joined Amazon and Penguin Random House in suing the digital print piracy outfit, Kiss Library, aka,,

Based in the Ukraine, Kissly rips off digital copies of popular books and sells them at discounted prices without compensating the authors or their publishers. A study cited by the plaintiffs suggests that 14% of the ebook market has been seized by pirates of this ilk.

If they don’t wind up in jail, the operators of Kissly deserve a peace prize for forging unity among the sworn enemies, Amazon, Random House, and the Author’s Guild.

Says the Author’s Guild: “We are very grateful to Amazon Publishing and Penguin Random House for joining us in this lawsuit, as few authors possess the financial resources to file suit in federal court, particularly against a foreign adversary as cagey as Kiss Library.”

I have no real problem with this campaign against Kissly. To the extent it succeeds, I stand to benefit as a writer and a publisher. It’s ridiculous, however, to assert, as does the Guild, that this lawsuit will restore the ability of authors and publishers to earn a living. People who don’t want to pay for books can always borrow them from a library.

If you want a book on book stealing, there is Grisham’s fiction or, better, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, set in World War II Germany. Best of all is a non-fiction entry: The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell (2017). Best known for burning books, the Nazis were also good at stealing them. They systematically plundered the libraries and bookstores of conquered Europe during the war. The objective wasn’t to make money but to study the texts and engage in intellectual warfare against their enemies, including Jews, Communists, liberal politicians, gays, Roman Catholics, Freemasons, and so on. After the war, many of the books drifted into German public libraries and remain there to this day although, as Rydell’s title suggests, there is a campaign to return them to their rightful owners

I’ve just ordered Patrick Svensson’s The Book of Eels after reading this review of it in the New Yorker. I know nothing about eels but I’ve always been curious about them. A biography of Lou Gehrig I read in grade school told of how, as a boy, the future Yankee slugger would go out at night with his mother (above) and a flashlight and look for eels that she would pickle. Eels travel at night. Mrs. Gehrig’s pickled delicacies were said to be the source of her son’s prodigious strength. He would share the pickled eels with other teammates. Those Yankee teams were unbeatable.

Back to Svensson. How can you resist this:

Svensson’s book, like its subject, is a strange beast: a creature of metamorphosis, a shape-shifter that moves among realms. It is a book of natural history, and a memoir about a son and his father. It is also an exploration of literature and religion and custom, and what it means to live in a world full of questions we can’t always answer. Svensson writes on page 1 that the eel “eludes the usual measures of the world,” and as the book progresses he begins to see other things as similarly elusive. He has seen eels that appear to be dead but are not, and eels that really are dead—chopped up and frying in butter, even—but still move as though they were alive. “To the eel, death seemed relative,” he writes. He has learned that the timing of an eel’s final transformation, the one that brings it to both its own death and the birth of the next generation, seems to be unrelated to time itself: eels might feel the pull to return to the sea after eight years inland, or after nearly sixty, or never, remaining behind in a sort of suspended animation. The eels that travel together across the ocean might be at the same stage of life, yet decades apart in age. Svensson is captivated by the implications of this. “You have to ask yourself: How does a creature like that perceive time?” he wonders.


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