A few weeks ago, late one night, burglars broke into SN Books’ warehouse in Thetford, England. They made off with, among others, a Bloomsbury first edition of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in a custom box (worth around $69,000 Canadian); a first edition of The Hobbit from 1937 ($12,000); a set of four first editions of Winnie-the-Pooh in a custom box ($8,700); and a first edition of The Great Gatsby from 1925 ($3,500).

The value and size of the haul suggests an organized for-profit effort. Yet many people steal books for their personal use. Some do it rarely, on impulse, some do it routinely. There’s even a name for those habitual thieves: bibliokleptomaniacs, which was referenced once in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

When you buy a book online, you can get recommendations based on your preferences. We can learn something about the people who pilfer books, too, based on their popular targets.

It’s often reported that the Bible is the most commonly stolen book, not just from stores but from hotel drawers and places of worship. Ironic, yes, but some speculate that there are so many free copies around that people don’t think of it as stealing. Thou shalt not…oh never mind.

Several bookstores report that frequent marks include On the Road by Kerouac and works by Bukowski and Burroughs. Just the sort of fare that would appeal to free spirits who may have an anti-commerce bent. There’s even a name for it: “shoplift lit”.

Libraries have their own problems with sticky-fingered patrons. A number of years back, the American Library Association asked their members to name their most-stolen books. Many titles covered topics that perhaps some people were embarrassed to check out. Books related to the occult, witchcraft, physical abuse, drugs and sex were high on the list.

The library list also included how-to books (like car repair) and, again, the Bible. Speaking of morality, one library noted that someone actually stole an exam preparation book about becoming a police officer.

So how to protect books?

An article on the website atlasobscura.com pointed out that in medieval days scribes slaved to copy just a single copy of a book. It could take years. So they wanted to do whatever they could to discourage theft. One method: include curses at the beginning or end of a book. Like these:

  • “May the sword of anathema slay, if anyone steals this book away.”
  • “If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen.”
  • “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. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment let the flames of hell consume him for ever.” (The Canadian Medical Association Journal article mentioned that one too.)

Yikes. That’s a little more intense than, say, an anti-theft tag. Although come to think of it, maybe that stolen Potter book had a spell in it.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

January 31, 2018

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