< Stealing Books


Friday, December 23, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: While we're on the subject of books, this week "The Sopranos" began airing seasons one through five in the run-up to the sixth season, which starts in March. In the second season, a recommendation by renowned litterateur Tony Soprano pushed an ancient bit of Chinese wisdom onto the Best Seller list, namely, The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.

TONY SOPRANO: Been reading that, that book you told me about, called The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. I mean, here's this guy, a Chinese general, wrote this thing 2400 years ago, and most of it still applies today. Balk the enemy's power. Force him to reveal himself. You know, most of the guys that I know, they read Prince Machiavelli. And I had Carmela go and get the Cliff Notes once and - he's okay. But this book is much better about strategy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: After Tony plugged the book - not literally, on HBO - the Oxford University Press placed a small ad in the New York Times. It read, "Tony Soprano fears no enemy. Sun Tzu taught him how." In an interview with the Boston Globe, Sara Leopold of the Oxford University Press said that there was no doubt about it, the spurt was due entirely to "The Sopranos." Every copy sold out, which raised the question, would Tony's colleagues have purchased the book or gotten it off the back of a truck, which leads ineluctably to yet another question. Book theft is rampant in this country, so who is doing the stealing? In New York City, there are tables lining avenues all over town, overflowing with books that have fallen off the back of trucks. The deal is: the boosters steal the books, sell them to the guys with the tables for a quarter of the cover price, and they sell it to the rest of us for half of the cover price. Except that we would never do that; who would buy a stolen book! For that matter, who would steal a book? Back in 2001, we asked New York Observer columnist and author Ron Rosenbaum, who thinks he knows who.

RON ROSENBAUM: I was going to write a column about the kinds of people who like Bukowski and Burroughs, the "Killer Bees." I thought, there's a certain personality type. And then I found - I tried to buy a couple of Bukowski books - I found they're not on the shelves of this Barnes & Noble. They're behind the counter. Then, a couple of weeks later, I went back to get a Martin Amis. He's not on the shelves, he's behind the counter. Then a couple of weeks later I went to try to get a Raymond Chandler as a gift to someone - he's behind the counter. And suddenly it crept up on me. I realized that Barnes & Noble has a kind of Shoplift Wall of Fame or Wall of Shame - all the most frequently shoplifted books.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron Rosenbaum is the author of a collection of non-fiction called The Secret Parts of Fortune. He got the Barnes & Noble clerk to share the list of the most shoplifted. Barnes & Noble declined to answer our questions, so consider the following privileged information.

RON ROSENBAUM: Here's the authors they gave me. Martin Amis, Paul Auster, George Bataille, William Burroughs, Italo Calvino, Raymond Chandler, Michel Foucault, Dashiell Hammett, Jack Kerouac and Jeanette Winterson.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: On both coasts and points in between, Bukowski is the number-one choice of book bandits. And Rosenbaum has formed a personality profile of the perpetrators.

RON ROSENBAUM: There's a certain kind of person who feels that Bukowski and Burroughs and literature that, you know, dwells incessantly on excrement and vomit and the lower depths, is literature about the truth. And I guess they identify with these down-and-out heroes. And so they feel that that somehow validates their desire to just shoplift the books.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course Rosenbaum, who's authored a few books himself, thinks they're fooling themselves.

RON ROSENBAUM: You know, if you look at who's actually doing the shoplifting, they're not really down-and-out, lower-depths types but like to pose as being down and out, and shoplifting is part of the aura. You know, so I call the frequent shoplifter of Burroughs and Bukowski, "Bukowski Man," 'cause they're always saying "Oh, yeah, Bukowski, man. Only Bukowski, man, really lays it on the line. He's the only one who could tell the truth, dude."

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the majority of book thefts are not the work of the Bukowski Man. Tom Cushman, who managed a number of bookstores in the city, currently Ivy's and Murder Ink, says thieves are not motivated by literary notions or even personal taste, except for money.

TOM CUSHMAN: It's a romantic notion, but the thing is that book theft is really, it's a much more pedestrian thing. It's really no different than stealing anything else.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Books don't have to portray drug abuse or actionable sexual practices to attract the professional.

TOM CUSHMAN: When the Harry Potter book came out, we kept those behind the counter.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Presumably not from light-fingered pre-adolescents.

TOM CUSHMAN: No, certainly not. I mean, that book was such a popular theft item that even the guys who deliver the boxes of books to us were stealing them. That was definitely a hot item on the streets.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Whether a book is ripe for the "five-finger discount" depends on a few key factors, says Cushman. Location. Are they tucked away or in plain view of the clerk? Re-sale prospects. Did I mention Harry Potter? And yes, thieves do judge a book by its cover, especially those of attractive trade paperbacks like Paul Auster's.

TOM CUSHMAN: Where I really came into a great deal of contact with book theft, I was manager at a Rizzoli down in Soho. And there we had like seven authors that were the most popular stolen books. And out of the seven, Paul Auster was actually the only living author. [LAUGHS] He had the distinction of being the only living author who was most stolen.

PAUL AUSTER: Well, all I can is I'm mystified. I don't know what to make of it at all.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Novelist Paul Auster is the author of many books, though his New York Trilogy is the most stolen.

PAUL AUSTER: I guess you feel pleased that there are people who actually want to read you so much they're willing to break the law to do it. But at the same time, you feel that, well, maybe your work just appeals to the criminal elements in society. I mean, I don't know. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Book store manager Tom Cushman says that in his experience, book crooks are not breaking the law to read.

TOM CUSHMAN: I had a whole stack once of about 20 or 30 copies of the New York Trilogy of his that somebody just came in and just took the whole stack.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would Auster feel better if he knew readers, rather than professional thieves, were stealing his books?

PAUL AUSTER: Yes, I suppose I would. Somehow mixing commerce into all this makes it a little unsavory. If it were some passionate, poor person who wanted to read the book, then I could understand it a little better.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: One place where the book thief is more likely to read what he hath took is the public library, and library theft tends to lean toward the practical more than the popular; news you can use, so to speak - how-to books ranging from auto repair to divorce, how to ace the GEDs and The Joy of Sex, also anything - and this is from libraries across the country - anything to do with witchcraft, the occult, UFOs or astrology. And there are some other popular choices for the kleptomaniacally-inclined - the Bible, for instance. [SOUND OF RON ROSENBAUM LAUGHING]] Ron Rosenbaum.

RON ROSENBAUM: Well, I guess the people who are shoplifting haven't had a chance to flip through the Ten Commandments, you know, to Thou Shalt Not Steal, you know. Maybe afterwards they'll return them out of remorse.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: When we did that piece, we asked the press officer for the American Library Association, Larra Clark, to conduct a national ad hoc e-mail poll of library theft for On the Media. She heard from 70 libraries across the country. She said that one name that never, ever came up was Charles Bukowski.

LARRA CLARK: You know I personally, I've got to admit, didn't know who that was, and it didn't come up anywhere in my questioning to people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what's with the five copies of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus - [OVERTALK]


BROOKE GLADSTONE: - being stolen from Orchard Beach, Maine?

LARRA CLARK: You know, who knows? Are people embarrassed to buy it?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You did get a response from a prison library.

LARRA CLARK: We did hear from a prison library, and the dictionary was their most frequently stolen - and books of poetry.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I was very interested in the behavior of some moral guardians of the community that some of the librarians wrote about.

LARRA CLARK: Right. The idea that people would remove books from our collections because they don't want anyone to have access to them is very troubling.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: For instance, one library in Maine went through three copies of Heather Has Two Mommies.

LARRA CLARK: I think it's unfortunate that people will resort to stealing to kind of force their will on a library community. There's a minister that works with the Library Association and one of the things he says about that is - he's like, you know, if you can take this book out of the library, what's going to keep you from taking my favorite book, which is the Bible, out of the library.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And a lot of people do steal the Bible.

LARRA CLARK: They do, actually. A couple of librarians, including one in Salt Lake City, she said that the Bible was their most frequently stolen book.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: We spoke to American Library Association Press Officer Larra Clark in 2001. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited - by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Katie Holt and Kevin Schlottmann. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.