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07.05.11 11:34 PM ET

Steal This Book

Ebooks and digital readers spell the end of the time-honored tradition of shoplifting books. Author Rachel Shteir talks about what we’re going to lose about ourselves when books can no longer be stolen from a store.

There is one thing I have not heard discussed in any symposium on The Future of Books, even though it represents as big a shift in the zeitgeist as the platform of how we read books or where we buy them: I am talking about The End of Shoplifting Books. 

As books disappear, they will join CDs, DVDs, and LPs as items that were once desirable but now can be picked up for next to nothing in flea markets and pawn shops or on eBay. No one will steal them anymore.

I do not mean to suggest that shoplifting is good. Shoplifting books, like all shoplifting, can damage a store’s profits, and at a time when bookstores are struggling, this is not a good thing.

And yet book shoplifting differs from other variations of the five-finger discount in that it seems to arise, at least in some instances, not merely out of a desire to resell the stolen item, but from an aspirational craving to read—to be literary—or some other high-minded hunger, such as the one for knowledge. I was reminded of this romantic notion while reading Roberto Bolaño’s short essay, “Who Would Dare?” in Between Parentheses, a collection of his posthumous pieces recently published. “Who Would Dare?” describes a longing for books as intense as the one for a lover. “The books I remember most are the ones I stole in Mexico City from the age of 16 to 19,” Bolaño begins, going on to write of his shoplifting in reverential tones.

Why did Bolaño do it? Like many book thieves, because he was young and poor. But also, because he liked the challenge and the risk.

A bookstore made out of glass and steel, a fortress as much as a refuge, propels Bolaño to his first theft. As he swiped 18th- and 19th-century writers and poets, he relates not just his technique, but how the sneaky act set aflame his hunger to read.

Camus drove him over the edge: “After I stole that book and read it,” he writes about The Fall, “I went from being a prudent reader to being a voracious reader.”

In our world of ebooks, Nooks, and Kindles, Bolaño seems quaint. His account of stealing recalls thieves from earlier eras, like Jean Genet who claimed to experience ecstasy while nabbing Proust and Saul Bellow’s Augie March shoplifting all sorts of books and explaining that borrowing them from the library wasn’t the same. 

Such literary figures (and characters) are less-hardened criminals seeking to resell volumes for profit—although sometimes they did that too—than a representative mix of commerce and literary thirst. They tell us something about ourselves. They are also going to vanish.

One way to think about book shoplifting’s rise and fall is to think about how it is linked to the paperback. The most evocative accounts of the crime were written in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, after publishers invented mass-market paperbacks, which were lightweight, cheap, and easily stolen.

The Steal by Rachel Shteir 272 p. Penguin. $25.95.

But if book shoplifting can be looked at in historical context, it must then evoke nostalgia. Indeed, for all the advantages of the elimination of the crime, there is no doubt in my mind that something is going to be lost when it is extinct. For one, readers will no longer have the pleasure of reading charming polemics against it, like Ron Rosenbaum’s 1999 New York Observer essay. “Shoplift Lit: You Are What You Steal” demystified “Bukowski Man,” a guy who, shoplifting hip writers, imagines that he is Jack Kerouac. (Hard to imagine an essay this funny being written about people violating book copyright digitally.) 

Nor will editors assign columns on the most-shoplifted books, columns that present us with funny and occasionally wise truths. We will probably never again read anything like novelist Margo Rabb’s 2009 essay for The New York Times Book Review about the crime, which, listing the most frequently shoplifted books, sounded like Affirmative Action for Tough Guys. Bukowski, Jim Thompson, Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman, Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, and Neil Gaiman are all so frequently stolen that bookstores put them behind the counter. Rabb also recounts a contest between Jeffrey Eugenides and Paul Auster for the title of most-shoplifted writer in the U.K.

No shoplifted Ann Patchett. Certainly no shoplifted Jane Austen. And this was before Franzengate.

That there is a War Between the Sexes in book shoplifting (as well as everywhere else) is not the only thing to be learned by studying these lists, however unscientific and apocryphal they are. Another one naming the Bible as the book with the honorific right to Most Shoplifted, suggests that The Good Book is also the Most Popular, as if the devout were smuggling King James out of bookstores in their raincoats.

It is far less romantic to hear, in a post book-shoplifting era, tales of Nigerian scammers stealing Bibles and gangs of professional thieves pinching medical and accounting textbooks. Of course, books do not even make it to lists of the most frequently shoplifted items, which tend to include painkillers, steak, razorblades, and electric toothbrushes, all of which suggests that we are not a nation of readers.

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Just as the discount clothing giant Century 21 replaced Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center, I predict that accounts of clothes pilfering will replace book shoplifting. There are already quite a few books on the subject: Plum Sykes’ Bergdorf Blondes, where the department store’s heiress steals designer goods from her daddy’s amazing store at the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Tao Lin’s dreary Shoplifting From American Apparel contains one chapter about the title store. My favorite novel about clothes shoplifting may be Paul Rudnick’s I’ll Take It, which tells the story of Joe Reckler, a Yale grad and his mother, a shoplifter of luxury goods who “heisted only things she was truly infatuated with.”

But shoplifting clothing—even luxury clothing—although it may transform the way we look, and the way we think of ourselves, is not the same as shoplifting books, which may have taken hold to the extent that it did because it confers importance on books. And because it seems, albeit abstractly, linked to creativity.

The maxim, “good writers borrow, great writers steal,” which is attributed to T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Picasso, is about filching ideas in order to transform them into one’s own work. But in the hands of Bolaño and other literary book thieves, it does seem to apply to shoplifting, too.    

Shoplifting may continue, but not in the bookstore. Yesterday’s sticky-fingered book thieves are tomorrow’s Napster-downloaders, Internet hoaxsters, and WikiLeaks wannabes.