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Rebecca Sherman On Being A Book Thief

A book thief’s confession.
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Book Keeping

I steal books. Let me clarify: If you lend me a book, you won’t get it back.

I first realized that I had a problem about 10 years ago. A friend stopped by to borrow a book, and as I handed it to her, she must have noticed a wary look. She immediately volunteered that she always returned books. I was relieved, as I’d lost many good books this way. The gall of some people. It was enough to make you stop lending, we said, righteous in our mutual loathing for those who might pocket our beloved hardbacks.

Eventually, the conversation turned to the topic of new books. Have you read T.C. Boyle’s latest, I queried? You must! The Tortilla Curtain is about illegal aliens trying to make a living in LA, a ’90s version of El Norte, only funny, I said, retrieving the shiny red book from the shelf. I opened it, and my heart stung with shame. There, inside the front cover, was a bookplate with someone else’s name on it: This book belongs to Debora K. Her address and phone number were neatly typed below. It all came rushing back. Debra K and I, old climbing buddies, had lost track of each other.

Not only was I a thief, I was a hypocrite. My mind raced. I don’t care what anyone says; this is my book. I’d reread it three times and bonded with its characters. Returning this book meant I’d have to abandon my poignant immigrants to Debra K, who I might trust to belay me on a steep rock face, but who knew how she’d handle Boyle’s complicated ethical nuances of immigration in America? She’d probably just laugh her way through it without realizing how tragic their predicament really was. I slapped the book shut and put it back on the shelf.

In the ensuing years, my collection of other people’s books has grown.

A handful of special books come to mind, including two out-of-print poetry books by Marge Piercy, lent to me by a sweet, budding poet; a hard-to-find copy of Oranges by John McPhee from the shelf of a former, well-read beau (Imagine, a whole book written solely on the topic of oranges!); and books on Muhammad Ali by Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, appropriated from yet another ex. These two great writers sparked my interest in boxing, a gift I am still grateful for.

There is a psychiatric disorder for people who steal books. It’s called bibliokleptomania. That would not be me. I’m really more of a bibliomaniac, one who obsessively collects books, even if they belong to other people. This is not to be confused with bibliophile, a person who loves books. That would be most of you.

Recently, during a photo shoot at a house filled with literally hundreds of thousands of wonderful old books, I started to have crazy thoughts about walking out with some of them. In 1994, Harper’s magazine published a cover story by Philip Weiss called “The Book Thief,€VbCrLf about notorious bibliomaniac Stephen Blumberg who nicked more than 22,000 rare books from libraries and museums, valued at more than $20 million. I relished this story when it appeared, secretly identifying with Blumberg, who never sold any of his purloined books. He read them.

I thought about Blumberg again when a new boyfriend admitted sheepishly that as a poor white kid growing up in the barrio, he’d taught himself how to speak Spanish from books swiped from the library. It was survival, he explained. I understood. Books, I rationalized, were not like a pair of pants or a wad of money. Books contain memories and emotions. Take for instance my mother’s 1942 Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book, which she let me borrow last year on the condition I’d return it the next weekend. A specimen of bygone domesticity, its ratty front cover hangs by a thread, and its pages have turned brown and brittle. But it holds the many recipes that my mother used to make when we were growing up, with her handwritten notes and my hilarious recipe for buttered toast, penned in crayon at age eight. That old cookbook is so much more than the sum of its contents. I never returned it.

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