Jorge Luis Borges, Forgeries, and Book Theft

jlb

Fascinating story today at The Paris Review about a first edition of Jorge Luis Borges’s early poems stolen—and then returned (perhaps?)—to the National Library of Argentina. Forgeries, facsimiles, and book thefts! The following paragraph points out that Borges himself was once director of the library:

The National Library is as old as Argentina: it was created in 1810, together with the first national government, and its first director was Mariano Moreno, one of the greatest national heroes and the founder of the country’s first newspaper. The library was, at one point, something to be proud of, and Borges’s name is inextricably linked to its history; he was its director for eighteen years, between 1955 and 1973. By then, books were already disappearing from its shelves. When asked whether this was true, he replied, in typical fashion, “I can’t tell whether books are being stolen, because I’m blind.”

Read the essay.

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Confession

The following is the complete text of an email someone sent me today:

I give you permission to publish this anonymously. Do you do that?

***

It seems that I have stolen many books. Let me elaborate on these and the occasions on which I thieved.

Although packs of baseball cards such as I used to steal from gas stations as a young boy are not books per se, this is how my thieving began. Perhaps. Or perhaps my thieving began further in my past than my memory now reaches.

I stole from a university library Omensetter’s Luck by William Gass–an earnest accident that I did not seek to right after I noticed I had escaped with it and that the magnetic gate had not reacted with its electronic screeching to alert the responsibles.

From the same erudite friend I stole The Captive Mind by Milosz, and also Le Parti pris by Francis Ponge. Perhaps Grass’s The Tin Drum too.

From an institute in France I stole an edition of selections from Apollinaire’s Alcools, as well as a Surrealist anthology. And both of André Breton’s Surrealist manifestos. From my host family I stole a book of Blaise Cendrars’s poetry.

Accidentally from a bookstore I stole Washington Square by Henry James. Honest.

From a library I stole Nicholas Mosley’s Serpent, as well as a book called The Art of Not Working, or some such title.

I have probably stolen ten or so other books. Titles escape me. That’s not too bad, I suppose.

Oh yes, I also stole that book Marilyn Manson wrote in the 1990s, and I gave it as a gift to a romantic interest. How unromantic this seems now.

I think I stole many books as an adolescent. Some of these I placed in my pants, held against my abdomen by the pressure of my pants waistline or belt. I think I stole numerous books related to sex when I was young.

I don’t think I’ve hardly ever borrowed a book and not returned it.

***

I give you permission to publish this anonymously. Do you do that?

 

You know, I don’t normally do that (i.e. this), but I guess I could start.

If anyone else feels like anonymously confessing to book theft, email me.

 

 

Keith Miller’s The Book on Fire, A Tale of Biblioklepts, Bibliophiles, and Bibliomania

Balthazar, the hero of Keith Miller’s agile and trippy novel The Book on Fire, is a biblioklept. He comes to Alexandria to rob the famous library, a cavernous, labyrinthine complex that still exists–under heavy guard—in Miller’s mystical version of that ancient Egyptian city. Miller’s Alexandria is a byzantine maze, humming with a turn-of-the-century buzz, a kaleidoscope world that strongly reminded me of the strange cityscapes of William Gibson or William Burroughs. Here, Balthazar describes his attraction to Alexandria:

This is the city of books, where children are admonished if they don’t bring a book to the breakfast table, where they’re ordered by their mothers to drop their books and go play on the street, where bedtime tales sometimes continue, chapter after chapter, till well after midnight, parents pinching their children to keep them awake. This is a city where men beat their wives with books, the women shielding their heads with books. A city of book-whores, who fuck for books, and their bibliogiglios. A city of book-beggars, who spit on your money, gesturing with their stumps to the paperback in your hand.

What a town for a book thief! Balthazar plans to rob the Library of Alexandria, but he spends his early months stealing rare books from private homes. Soon, he’s trailed by Zeinab, a book prostitute who burns each volume she’s paid with. After a sexual interlude (“like fucking a wounded ferret,” Balthazar tells us), Zeinab introduces our hero to a guild of thieves and helps guide him through Alexandria’s frenetic underworld. In time, Balthazar breaches the forbidden, intoxicating library:

I read impossibly gorgeous scripts. Scripts in which each hieroglyph filled a page and took a day to write, but could express an entire philosophy. Scripts in which each letter stood for a notion, so the writing dictated thought patterns rather than words. Scripts that had no meaning at all, or that started out meaningfully but then, as the author was caught up in the physical act of writing, became relationships of lines and shapes on paper, beautiful and abstract. Private scripts, the authors long dead, so the script stood isolated, unreadable precious nonetheless. Rainforest scripts of samara and turaco crest. Marine scripts of shark tooth and sand dollar. I passed through rooms of books the size of doors, each cover the death of an eland, and rooms of books dainty as ladybirds. Books written on communion wafers, grains of rice, sheets of ice.

For Balthazar, books are a drug, and the Library of Alexandria is the heady nexus point for his addiction. No wonder then that he becomes obsessed with the young librarian Shireen, whom he plots to free (or perhaps steal) from the library—a plan that comes into conflict with Zeinab’s own designs. And while The Book of Fire does have the strong, page turning plot of a thriller, that plot exists mostly as the bones for Miller to hang rapturous descriptions of reading and books and, best of all, his strange Alexandria, a city of marvels. Good stuff.

George Washington Was A Biblioklept

George Washington was a biblioklept. MobyLives hipped us to Ed Pilkington’s Guardian article. From the article:

Founder of a nation, trouncer of the English, God-fearing family man: all in all, George Washington has enjoyed a pretty decent reputation. Until now, that is.

The hero who crossed the Delaware river may not have been quite so squeaky clean when it came to borrowing library books.

The New York Society Library, the city’s only lender of books at the time of Washington’s presidency, has revealed that the first American president took out two volumes and pointedly failed to return them.

At today’s prices, adjusted for inflation, he would face a late fine of $300,000.

The library’s ledgers show that Washington took out the books on 5 October 1789, some five months into his presidency at a time when New York was still the capital. They were an essay on international affairs called Law of Nations and the twelfth volume of a 14-volume collection of debates from the English House of Commons.

The ledger simply referred to the borrower as “President” in quill pen, and had no return date.

Patti Smith, Book Thief

Patti Smith’s story about stealing a book was published last month in The New Yorker; somehow we missed it. It’s good to see this blog return to its original mission sometimes. Here’s an excerpt, but the whole piece is lovely and moving:

The next Saturday, my mother gave me a dollar and sent me to the A. & P. alone. Two quarts of milk and a loaf of bread: that’s what a dollar bought in 1957. I went straight to the World Book display. There was only one first volume left, which I placed in my cart. I didn’t need a cart, but took one so I could read as I went up and down the aisles. A lot of time went by, but I had little concept of time, a fact that often got me in trouble. I knew I had to leave, but I couldn’t bear to part with the book. Impulsively I put it inside my shirt and zipped up my plaid windbreaker. I was a tall, skinny kid, and I’m certain every contour of the book was conspicuous.

I strolled the aisles for several more minutes, then went through the checkout, paid my dollar, swiftly bagged the three items, and headed home with my heart pounding.

Suddenly I felt a heavy tap on my shoulder and turned to find the biggest man I had ever seen. He was the store detective, and he asked me to hand it over. I just stood in silence. “We know you stole something—you will have to be searched.” Horrified, I slid the heavy book out from the bottom of my shirt.

He looked at it quizzically. “This is what you stole, an encyclopedia?”

“Yes,” I whispered, trembling.

“Why didn’t you ask your parents?”

“I did,” I said, “but they didn’t have the money.”

“Do you know it’s wrong?”

“Yes.”

Bolaño the Biblioklept

The New York Review of Books has published an excerpt of Roberto Bolaño’s essay “Who Would Dare?” It’s from the forthcoming collection, Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches (1998–2003) (translated by Natasha Wimmer; published by New Directions). A sample—

The books that I remember best are the ones I stole in Mexico City, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, and the ones I bought in Chile when I was twenty, during the first few months of the coup. In Mexico there was an incredible bookstore. It was called the Glass Bookstore and it was on the Alameda. Its walls, even the ceiling, were glass. Glass and iron beams. From the outside, it seemed an impossible place to steal from. And yet prudence was overcome by the temptation to try and after a while I made the attempt.

The first book to fall into my hands was a small volume by [the nineteenth century erotic poet] Pierre Louÿs, with pages as thin as Bible paper, I can’t remember now whether it was Aphrodite or Songs of Bilitis. I know that I was sixteen and that for a while Louÿs became my guide. Then I stole books by Max Beerbohm (The Happy Hypocrite), Champfleury, Samuel Pepys, the Goncourt brothers, Alphonse Daudet, and Rulfo and Areola, Mexican writers who at the time were still more or less practicing, and whom I might therefore meet some morning on Avenida Niño Perdido, a teeming street that my maps of Mexico City hide from me today, as if Niño Perdido could only have existed in my imagination, or as if the street, with its underground stores and street performers had really been lost, just as I got lost at the age of sixteen.

A Modern Euphemism Which Softens the Ugly Word Book-thief

A definition of “biblioklept,” from William S. Walsh’s strange and wonderful 1909 ‘cyclopedia, Handy-book of Literary Curiosities:

Biblioklept, a modern euphemism which softens the ugly word book-thief by shrouding it in the mystery of the Greek language. So the French say, not voleur, but chipeiir de livres. The true bibliomaniac cannot help feeling a tenderness for his pet fad, even when carried to regrettable excesses. Perhaps he has often felt his own fingers tingle in view of a rare de Grolier, a unique Elzevir, he knows the strength of the temptation, he estimates rightly his own weakness; perhaps, if he carries self-analysis to the unflattering point which it rarely reaches, save in the sincerest and finest spirits, he recognizes that his power of resistance is supplied not by virtue, but by fear,—fear of ilie police and of Mrs. Grundy. In his inner soul he admires the daring which risks all for the sake of a great passion. When a famous book-collector was exhibiting his treasures to the Duke of Sussex, Queen Victoria’s uncle, he apologized to his royal highness for having to unlock each case. ‘• Oh, quite right, quite right,” was the reassuring reply: “to tell the truth, I’m a terrible thief.” There are not many of us who are so honest. Nevertheless, the epidemic form which bibliokleptomania has assumed is recognized in the motto which school-boys affix to their books, warning honest friends not to steal them. ” Honest may, of course, be a fine bit of sarcasm. But one prefers to look upon it as indicating a subtle juvenile prescience that the most honest and the most friendly will steal books, as the most honest will cheat their dearest friends in a matter of horseflesh.

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