Passing sentences … what’s the worst kind of book thief?

Theft is never a great thing, but there must be a special place in hell for those who steal libraries’ shared cultural treasure

A 13th-century inscription in an early copy of Bede’s commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke (originally from Reading Abbey and now in the British Library) reads “Quem qui celaverit vel fraudem de eo fecerit anathema sit”, translated as “Anyone who conceals or does damage to it, may he be cursed”. Such curses in manuscripts aimed at those who might dare to steal them from medieval monastic libraries were not uncommon, but the custodians of the library of San Pedro in Barcelona were considerably less circumspect with their maledictions, warning potentially light-fingered readers that: “For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted.”

Whether it is because we regard our own book collections as deeply personal, reflecting elements of our personalities, or because books already provide such extraordinary value for money, book thefts seem to fire our imaginations: see the recent story about the recovery of £2.5m of rare books stolen in a “Mission Impossible-style theft”. But this week’s admission by Cambridge University that two of Charles Darwin’s manuscript notebooks appear to have been stolen raises some interesting moral questions that – as a bookseller – have bothered me for some time.

Charles Darwin’s seminal 1837 Tree of Life sketch from a notebook that has, along with another Charles Darwin manuscript, been reported as stolen from Cambridge University Library.
Charles Darwin’s seminal 1837 Tree of Life sketch from a notebook that has, along with another of his manuscripts, been reported as stolen from Cambridge University Library. Photograph: Cambridge University Library/PA

Irvine Welsh succinctly addressed the problem in Trainspotting. Near the start of the book, Renton and Spud are caught stealing books from Waterstones. The magistrate charged with determining their futures jails Spud when he admits that he stole the book to sell it on. Renton, on the other hand maintains that he intended to read his stolen Kierkegaard – a claim which the judge sneeringly challenges. Renton replies: “I’m interested in his concepts of subjectivity and truth, and particularly his ideas concerning choice; the notion that genuine choice is made out of doubt and uncertainty, and without recourse to the experience or advice of others.” Unlike Spud, Renton is acquitted.

Shops selling new books are, I suspect, more often the victims of theft than those of us in the secondhand trade. It’s generally not worth taking the risk of being caught pocketing a tatty £2 paperback copy of Animal Farm, but some years ago a friend admitted that when he was an impoverished student he regularly stole Penguin Classics from shops such as mine. My initial outrage was soon tempered by the thought that if someone who can’t afford even cheap paperbacks is reduced to stealing from a shop as part of their education, is that really so bad?

When I was a student, one corner of the university library was almost permanently occupied by the same person who, it transpired, had chosen that part of the room for no other reason than that it was close to one of the few opening windows in the building. Over the years, he had thrown hundreds of books out of it, then picked them up and sold them on to a collector. This is where the moral dilemma troubles me. Is it worse to steal books from a library than from a bookshop? And is it worse to steal books to sell them to make money than to steal them because you can’t afford them and wish to read them? The answer to both questions is – for me – an unequivocal yes. Without wishing to invite legions of larcenous bibliophiles into my (or any other) bookshop, there’s no question that stealing from a shop hits just one business financially, whereas stealing from a library is a cultural theft; it denies everyone the opportunity of having access to that book. Even a rare book bought (or stolen) from a bookshop will end up having just one owner, whereas in a public library that same book is available for anyone who wishes to read it.

The public outrage in the case of Edward Forbes Smiley, the American map dealer who was convicted in 2006 of stealing 97 rare maps by cutting them out of atlases held in public and university institutions would undoubtedly have been considerably less furious had he stolen them from a private collection. For extremely rare books, maps, or – as in the case of the Darwin manuscripts, unique items – these thefts are inevitably the result of one of two things; opportunism, or stealing to order. There’s no way that such things could ever appear on the open market without attracting suspicion or, as in Smiley’s case, a prison sentence.

There’s a comparison to be drawn with works of art in public institutions; in 1990 thieves broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole 13 works of art, including one of only 34 known paintings by Vermeer, and while speculation remains rife about who was behind the theft (and why), none of the items has ever been recovered. Nobody can stand in wonder in front of that Vermeer now, save possibly a handful of people. Smiley was offered a partial amnesty for assisting in the recovery of his stolen maps. Perhaps the passage of time, or a similar amnesty will play a part in the safe return of the Gardner pieces and the Darwin manuscripts.

Shortly after I’d bought my bookshop, a young man came in and offered to sell me what he was convinced was a Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect by Robert Burns - a scarce and quite valuable book. I asked him to leave it with me, which he obligingly did. It wasn’t a Kilmarnock Edition, but a much later and less rare book, but it contained the library stamp of Broughton House, a National Trust property that had once belonged to the artist Edward Atkinson Hornel. Unsure of what to do, I telephoned the previous owner of my shop. He told me not to touch it: Broughton House was at that time undergoing renovations and he believed that it had been stolen by someone working there. It had. I returned it to the National Trust and never saw the man again.

I doubt that I’m alone in wishing the person who stole the Darwin manuscripts all the goodwill of the monks of San Pedro – may the books change into a serpent in their hand and rend them. It’s time for some supernatural selection.

  • Shaun Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown and the bestselling author of Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops, Confessions of a Bookseller and Diary of a Bookseller (all Profile Books).

Shaun Bythell

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