There was a time when not a day went by that I didn’t steal a book. It wasn’t that I didn’t have money; but there’s never enough money to buy all the books we need to read or simply admire, hold, caress, knowing that we have them, that they’re ours because no longer theirs.
And yes, there was something Robin Hood-ish about stealing books from the bookstores of Buenos Aires, the city where I was born and learned to read.
I was the child of upper-middle-class parents. Well-educated and highly regarded in their respective fields. Parents who bought me books for my birthdays and didn’t hesitate to give me money to buy books. But, of course, returning to the Sherwood Forest scenario, my collection was so small and pathetic compared to the ample, well-stocked shelves of bookstores.
And the other day I read that ‘stealing books is the most selfish form of theft’.
Stealing books is actually literature as sport. When we write or read we’re sitting or lying down, almost motionless. When we steal books, however, the muscle of our brain acts in perfect harmony with the muscles of our body. When we steal books, we think and act, and, in some sense, read and write.
When you steal a book, you’re person and character all at once.
There are many cases of thieves of fiction, from Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. And I’ve lost count of the doomed readers who steal the Necronomicon and succumb upon dipping into the horrors of H. P. Lovecraft. There are also more sophisticated cases, like that of Joe Orton, who took books from public libraries, altered covers and blurbs, and returned them changed for ever.
And still, all these deeds of characters or persons strike us as pallid and inferior to our own. Because it’s impossible that others – though they be better written and crafted – should feel the untransferable intensity of what one feels in the moments before stealing a book, in the precise instant of stealing it, in the ecstatic minute afterwards when you discover, once again, that you’ve gotten out and gotten away with it without being caught.
The golden age of my career as a book thief spanned the years 1980 to 1985. There were as yet no electronic alarm systems or computerized listings. Everything was artisanally unplugged, truly artistic.
And – don’t ask me how, I can’t explain – after making my appearance at the imminent scene of the crime and selecting my immediate victim, I felt that I was almost physically enveloped in a kind of aura or halo that made me invisible to the bookstore employees. Something out of this world that made it possible for me to do whatever I wanted to do, take whatever I most desired. It didn’t matter how big the book was or how much it was worth. That book was there to be mine, to be abducted by the most loving of captors, to be spirited away to my room. To be touched only by my hands.
At some moment – reflexively or as a defense mechanism, one tends to regulate miracles in the hope of being able to call them up at will – I told myself that I might be one of the chosen, yes, but I shouldn’t waste or debase my talent by stealing books that were of no use to me or that weren’t indispensable in making me the writer I wanted to be.
And, of course, I immediately told myself that all books were indispensable, and, therefore, worthy of the honour of being stolen.
And so I gradually accumulated deeds that today I recall with the melancholy and wonder attached to certain picture-postcards of youth.
I stole, in plain sight of all, a hefty hardcover biography of James Joyce, signed by Richard Ellmann.
And one perfect winter morning, I challenged someone who at the time was a good friend and rival, another consummate book thief, to the ultimate test.
He and I stationed ourselves at one end of Avenida Corrientes, in Buenos Aires, famous for the number of bookstores located along it, bookstores that are still there, I think, though I’m writing this from so far away. And we set ourselves the goal – each of us on one side of the street, previously selected by the flip of a coin – to steal the seven volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In the order of publication.
I ought to say that I succeeded and he didn’t, and that our friendship was never the same again.
In time, of course, I developed certain techniques more sophisticated than the simple, physical stash under the coat. The one that yielded best results involved choosing which book to steal, retreating to a quiet corner of the store, inscribing the book to myself, and then going up to any clerk, showing him the book that I had ‘received as a gift’, inquiring whether they had another copy, asking how much it cost, sighing ‘It’s so expensive; I’d better lend him mine instead’, and leaving with my copy of the Collected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (the category ‘Collected’ or ‘Complete’ is so stealable) suddenly legitimized, and belonging to me. Sometimes, when the book to be stolen was by a living writer from somewhere nearby, I didn’t hesitate to inscribe it to myself with affection and gratitude.
And, of course, more than once, there were those occasions when something went wrong, when the protection of the golden shield vanished at the last minute and I had to run away down the street, chased by some clerk.
I remember fleeing with A Clockwork Orange in the inside pocket of my jacket, turning a corner, tossing some money on a counter, and going into a theater where Raiders of the Lost Ark was showing.
I had already seen it several times, I knew it by heart, the screening had already begun; but there was something fitting and poetic about the idea that a consummate thief of archeological treasures should give refuge to a young book thief, I thought then, I think now.
Now, in retrospect, it’s easy for me to see the Burgess/Spielberg incident as the beginning of the end.
I kept stealing books for a while. But I didn’t enjoy it as much. I felt less confident. Ambivalent.
Soon afterward I published my first story collection, and then – at a book fair, at one of those virtual olympic stadiums for book thiefs – came the moment of epiphany, the moment I watched a kid steal one of my books, then offer it to me to sign. ‘For X, who has given me the great joy of seeing someone steal to read the book I wrote’, I put on the first page.
The kid read the inscription and smiled at me with a mixture of pride and shame. More pride than shame.
I knew then that I had gone over to the other side, without possibility of return. And that – like the droog Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange – I was completely, unfortunately, and irreversibly ‘cured’.
Photograph by Scott Rettberg