Encounters with Books: Kleptomaniacally

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There is a name for my condition, and so I am human after all. This ailment of mine (though I don’t want no cure) might call for medic-alert bracelets, prescriptions. Though I’ve got the mildest of cases, but still— what a relief to have it pinned down. Not a character failing at all but an affliction, and Merriam-Webster’s Medical says so. For there is really such a thing as bibliokleptomania.

I steal books. Like most people who steal books, however, my thievery comes with strict perameters: I am not talking about copyright, and I would die before stealing from a bookshop or a library. No, rather I steal books in much the same manner people take in stray cats or foster children. I steal books from people who don’t take care of them, from establishments that keep them around as decoration. I steal books that double as coasters or doorstops. Books with shattered spines, or books that go uncatalogued— for how easily could such a book get lost, and who would ever know?

Not every one of these books, of course, goes home with me. Indeed there are some books which deserve to balance table legs or live on the backs of toilets. But some decidedly shouldn’t— good books, books with gaping holes in my own collection just waiting for them, books I covet, lust for, want. And they need me as much as I need them. I envision myself as protector of the neglected book, and my theft its liberation.

I began to suspect I was not alone in my crime when I came upon a profile of author Sheila Heti, and read that she’d found the inspiration for her novel Ticknor in a book she discovered whilst waiting for a friend at a lounge. She had “randomly pulled a book—an old leather-bound volume—from one of the shelves. She began reading and was intrigued by the uniqueness of the writer’s voice. ‘So I stole it,’ she says.”

Remarkable, her lack of compunction, her shamelessness. So matter-of-fact. She’d probably tell you that some books are meant to be stolen, have been waiting for you all their lives. Or at least I’d tell you that, if I were her. And also that these “lounges” are suspect places for books to be anyway. You know, sometimes they’re coffee shops, book-lined for ambience, but most of the books are terrible. Dumping grounds for the kinds of books that used to live on the backs of toilets, though I will admit this is probably because all the good books have been stolen. But the moral lines are so dubiously drawn here: who owns these books? They’re for the customers’ enjoyment? Who can enjoy a book for just fifteen minutes over a latte? So go on, just steal the book— it’s only right.

Of course this kind of stealing is small beans compared to what the big time biblioklepts get up to. Yes, the biblioklepts: those suffering from bibliokleptomania. There was even an article about it in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, in which writer E.C. Abbott explains that book thieving goes way back to the Middle Ages when books were rare and especially valuable. Abbott also writes of famous book thieves including Dr. Elois Pichler in the nineteenth century who stole 4000 volumes over three years from the Russian Imperial Library in St. Petersburg. He’d sneak them under his bulky overcoat, specially adapted with a storage sack inside, and when he was caught he was sent to Siberia. Also of Gilbert J. Bland, “the Al Capone of cartography”.

In another article, Pradeep Sabastian writes of Stephen Blumberg, who racked up over 22000 rare books over his “career”. “Though he had only passed high school he would masquerade as a professor in University libraries. His modus operandi ranged from wearing long coats with specially sown long pockets inside to hiding in the library after it closed… At his trial he said he always meant to return them.”

I find all this a bit delightful, though the less prolific book thieves not so much. All those petty scum who simply fail to return their library books, for example. Also those who manage to smuggle their heart’s desire out of the building without sounding the alarms— last year the British Library revealed their list of books registered missing, including a Jamie Oliver cookbook, 17 Rolling Stones albums, and four Shakespeare plays. People who cut pages out of library books or remove plates and illustrations from rare books make me sad. As does anyone who dares to steal a book for monetary gain. My disdain is also reserved for whoever it was that removed the “hotels” listings from all the Yellow Pages in the Montreal train station.

Though I must confess to being a bit in love with that woman in Maine who signed out two copies of It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex & Sexual Health from the library fourteen years ago. For isn’t bibliokleptomania at its best at its most absurd? I adore the fact that she refuses to return them because she thinks they’re pornographic.

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