The Book Thieves and I
I have — as far as I know — only made the acquaintance of one book thief. I do not include those students who illicitly ‘borrow’ books from the famously non-lending Bodleian in this count. I remember when I was a doctoral student, a fellow graduate casually mentioning that he had called up a thesis but could not be bothered to read it in the library so smuggled it out wrapped up in his jumper in order to photocopy it in its entirety; he later returned it. I found this all the more shocking because he had removed, albeit temporarily, an unpublished dissertation, the number of copies of which would be in single digits. I was more ambivalent a few years later about the student of mine who came for confession: in September 1997, he had wanted to use the Bodleian at the weekend only to discover it was to close on what he — and I — considered the spurious grounds of respecting the funeral of the former Princess of Wales. He had selected the book he wanted to study, removed it on the Friday and returned it on the Monday. Should he have been praised for his determination to read or condemned for breaking the library’s rules?
Those examples do not compare with actual campaigns of book-stealing. The one thief I have met was an academic who stole from Oxford and London libraries, and then sold them to auctioneers and dealers in the capital, claiming that he had inherited them from a late relative. A wise librarian called John eventually uncovered his deeds. The man was arrested and served time in prison. He is now, I believe, a radio presenter.
There is a detail of this case that came back to me last weekend, when I was reading The Financial Times‘ feature on book-stealing. John, the librarian, told me that the police had recovered some of the books from under the thief’s bed. He had hidden them there because he had to remove signs of their former, or rightful, ownership. He did not tear off the front boards, as some thieves do, or tear out pages with provenance marks. Instead, he spent his evenings painstakingly washing away the book-plates in the front of the volumes. John particularly remarked on this: the thief had done it as ‘a labour of love’, a sign of respect for the books he had purloined.
What brought this back to me was reading of the case of Stanislas Gosse, the young Alsatian who stole hundreds of volumes, including manuscripts, from the Mont Sainte-Odile monastery in Alsace. At his trial in 2003, he explained , or exculpated, his actions: ‘It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings and I felt no one consulted them any more’. Like the thief I knew, he respected what he stole.
The Financial Times parallelled Gosse with a more recent thief, Farhad Hakimzadeh, who (in a line which is surely to become notorious) loved his books so much, he spent his wedding night in their company. But Hakimzadeh did not simply steal volumes and maps: he sliced pages out of them. For sure, he did it clinically, so much so that The Guardian reported at the time ‘to the untrained eye the damage is barely visible’. However, it was damage and it was vandalism. It seems to me that there is a different impulse at work in Hakimzadeh’s actions from Gosse’s.
What Gosse did has been written up as bibliokleptomania. Whether it was in truth an uncontrollable desire as this designation would suggest, we are not competent to judge, though it makes a handy defence in court. Indeed, the description of both his motivation and that of Hakimzadeh is suspect, coming as they do from their trials. But Gosse’s phrasing struck me as remarkably familiar, unintentionally echoing the words of a humanist at work nearly six hundred years earlier.
Readers of these pages will have met my friend, Poggio Bracciolini, before. One of his claims to renown in scholarly circles is his recovery of classical texts that had not circulated in the centuries immediately before his lifetime. In one famous letter, he describes how he and colleagues (no solitary activity, this) visited the monastery of St. Gall and ‘there amid a tremendous quantity of books which it would take too long to describe, we found Quintilian still safe and sound, though filthy with mould and dust. For these books were not in the library, as befitted their worth, but in a sort of foul and gloomy dungeon at the bottom of one of the towers, where not even men convicted of a capital offence would have been stuck away’. Like Gosse, the humanists claimed that the owners had abandoned their books — respecting those volumes meant disrespecting the institutions that housed them.
Poggio and his colleagues would claim, 0f course, that what they were doing was not like Gosse’s actions because they would not admit to it being selfish. On the contrary, they insisted that they were acting in the interests of the republic of letters, not trying to hoard books but to make their texts available to the learned. The audience, it might be said, was select and hardly a wide public but their self-justification was much more bullish than a latterday defendant’s.
It also seems to me that the humanist impulse was at work a century after Poggio, in the early sixteenth century here in Oxford, when the old university library entered a period of decline. As it did, some of the manuscripts went missing from the chained library. Once again, those thefts might have been rationalised by their perpetrators as acts for the public good, saving venerable manuscripts from an institution incapable of caring for them properly. And, in a few cases, those books now survive because they were stolen.
In short, as I said in a lecture a couple of years ago, it is not only bad men who steal books. Nor is it the case that all thefts at all times have been considered heinous. The historians among us need to consider the shifting boundaries between safeguarding and appropriating, stealing and saving. We need to ask: when has the thieving of books been acceptable?