Friday, July 30, 2010

my short thieving life

"Darling is asleep at the foot of the wall. Sleep, Darling, stealer of nothing, stealer of books, of bell ropes, of horses' manes and tails, of bikes, of fancy dogs. Darling, tricky Darling..."

--from Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet

I often stole library books, and while I sometimes did it the old-fashioned way, this is the way I generally did it. now, you must keep in mind this was 3 decades ago and longer, when there was less communication between systems or even between libraries in the same system, when no one had computerized cards or barcodes.

it was almost disparingly simple. back then you could go to your library and get a card by submitting a bill with your name and address, and most libraries waived the bill and would accept any envelope with a canceled stamp and your name and address. I would mail myself an envelope, white-out my original name or just some letters of it and the street address, and then retype a new name and street address. I would then present this to the library, usually pretending to have an accent because it made it all the more interesting and because people back then were more likely to help a new citizen and to chalk up any discrepencies to his unfamiliarity with the country, and then check out any number of books I wanted, and simply never return them. I made certain as well as I could that there wasn't anyone with the name I'd submitted at that address because I didn't want to give him the bill.

my excuse, so far as I needed one, was that this was the government I was defrauding--and I realized that's what it was, and misusing the mails too--and as the government then was headed by republicans and specifically the bastard ronald reagan, this was to the good so far as I was concerned. I was all about taking advantage of the system back then, going so far as to attach return magazine and corporate postcards to city phone books and mailing them back, the whole industrial complex being one construct in my mind. or affixing stamps sideways to envelopes which would stop the automated system so someone would need to reach in and do it by hand (or so I'd been told, I don't honestly know if it was that much of a bother or if the machines had already been programmed to compensate for this).

I think often it's this sense of passive-aggressive revolt that attracts me to books like basbanes' a gentle madness and raynor's the blue suit or the novels about book scouts like reverte's club dumas or the cliff janeway mysteries by dunning. I knew even as I was doing it that these books were worth nothing monetarily--they were library copies with all the wear and tear and defacement such books are heir to--but they were worth something to me, and one of the things I told myself, and I'm certain I was at least partly right about this, was that my stealing them gave them some use since they would otherwise have languished on shelves for decades before being culled from the system for the crime of not having been checked out. I am reinforced in that belief any time I go to a library sale where there are thousands of bad books and maybe a dozen that I'm interested in, all of them marked by a large red "withdrawn" on the textblock.

so it wasn't for financial gain, although I guess in a sense it was since stealing books freed me from having to buy them and I could spend my money on other things (since I am like erasmus in that regard). I'm sure there's a hierarchy of thieves and on that grid I'm sure book thieves rank perilously low. but there was an element of excitment to it even if I was certain of not being caught--the sense of striking some kind of blow against a huge system, the delicious and nearly sexual thrill of breaking a commandment and the law, the swoon of fooling people into thinking I was someone I was not and their eagerness sometimes to help me. one librarian was so helpful that as I was checking out it took all I could do not to say "you know I'm not bringing these back, don't you?"

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