Thou Shalt Not Steal Books




This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 15,  Revolution

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I wasn’t a book boy. I did have a child’s picture book of Moby Dick. Probably 25 words a page, very colorful drawings, 30 big pages total? My favorite, and only. I loved it. I have no idea how it got in my possession. I didn’t steal it, I say to assure you. Books weren’t an item in my home. I remember I did like the glossy-cover encyclopedias they sold, I think it was weekly (could have been monthly), in the supermarkets way back then. I’d persuaded my mom to buy one or two or even three. I never really read them, just liked the idea of them and getting smart if you had them around. I might read a sports page. Mostly scores and stats of especially baseball. I played sports. Whatever was around, whatever anybody wanted to play. I was good at that.

Things changed right after high school. By that I mean for and in me. These were the Vietnam years. Hippies, weed, mushrooms, all as common as long hair (acid seemed to be for nerdy or loony whiteboys who didn’t need jobs or come from where they mattered) and those drafted and going, or finally back but a touch wacko and scary. I’d read a book my senior year — by that I mean I tried to — because I was in this special two-hour flunky English class. I thought the teacher was a drunk. Nobody and not me either in this class cared and that’s why we were in it. One day this man told those who were listening (or overhearing? I can’t remember him talking like a teacher) that hippies read a book called Stranger in a Strange Land, that it was like the hippie bible. I don’t know where I got it but I don’t believe I stole it. I wanted to learn about hippies because I liked marijuana and music and…all that seemed pretty nice about their cute girls and easy life. I didn’t get the book at all, what it was about, and I never heard the word “grok” with any of the peoples I encountered then or ever. But I did like that I’d read a book (even if I don’t think I did it, really, at least most of it). It made me feel smarter and that seemed…well, good. In the land I’d come up in, it was stupid sucks (the worst of them big and pissed off for being ugly) into scamming or gaming something, and mostly drunk or getting there. I wanted smart.

And so it was either Vietnam or, to stall, junior college. I didn’t grow up with my father, a WWII Marine sergeant, but even he, like many, wasn’t sure it was a wise move to be a draftee and go there. I kept my full-time employment and went to community college. It was like discovering girls for me. And my world flipped. There wasn’t a class I came in knowing anything. I was starving for it all. And I wanted to read the books for class cover to cover. Slow at first, word after word looked up, graph to page to chapter to one after another. There followed books that weren’t assigned. Then books others told me about. Then ones I found out about. Books that led to more books.

By the time I transferred to UC Santa Barbara, I thought I was a full-fledged intellectual. I wanted a revolution. I wanted a few. And I stole books. That had nothing to do with a revolution, since I used to steal shit when I didn’t know that word and it was candy or beer or gin or albums — those were the gentle things. But it did help to justify it that I was, uh, stealing for the revolution and not me me me. They weren’t often even anything to do with revolution. Of course I read Marx, Hegel, Marcuse and Fanon, the Soledad Brothers, Wright, Cleaver. I would steal Camus, Rulfo, Hesse, Paz, Beckett, and Dostoyevsky. Once even Porter (I saw all the pretty English majors carrying around her bestselling collection). Mostly it became stranger books. Because real fast I started changing too. I found I liked all kinds of subjects and titles. Plato to Chuang Tzu to Garcia Marquez and so on. And I wanted everything I read. What is that? That want to own that book you read, like it’s yours?

My favorite bookstore was the Isla Vista Bookstore. I preferred used books, and it had the best quality ones. I spent hours there learning its sections, trying ones in Spanish, trying ones in French. I got into mass westerns, my keeper favorites those when the lead character was an Indian and particularly a half-breed, my specialty. I was such a regular I’d often go there and find a new subject or book and read right there. Sometimes I didn’t steal, though mostly that could be seen as strategy — buy one or two real cheap, pants an expensive one or two. And so it was that there was this one pleasant day I’d come in and was wandering around, checking spines and then back covers and a few interior pages. I don’t remember where I was, what section, which books. It must have been in a more open area than I usually was. The bookstore had an upper floor that surrounded the main floor, like a gigantic, railed, overhead shelf, where we patrons never went. And maybe I’d been getting so comfortable in there, so used to doing what I did, that I forgot where I was and what I was doing wasn’t good:  two books down my pants and I looked up (was something said, or all non-verbal alarms?) and the owner was glaring at me. I felt like we knew each other, we approved of each other. I loved his bookstore. So much of my intimate time there. He couldn’t help liking me too — he was a bookstore owner, I was the epitome of who and what they were for. Except the stealing part.

I always thought he was Japanese. I don’t mean that to imply he was Zen, something as silly as that. Only a California type that did things well and thoughtfully and wasn’t messed up as…people like me. He didn’t start screaming or calling me names or yelling about police or arrest, didn’t rush down to shake or lecture me and cause me to run like a fool. He just stared at me calmly and spoke in a normal voice. “Never come back here again,” he said sternly.

I put the stolen books back on their shelf. I creeped off, eyes down, a sicko. I was truly ashamed. And devastated by the loss. I wasn’t sure what to do next, where to hide (I couldn’t even walk that block for years, pass by), where to be me. I was 50% books, both mind and body.

How many hours or days later I don’t remember, but I was in downtown Santa Barbara. I didn’t go there so often, just easy to drive to the “city” (I came up in the city of LA) and there was a Mexican restaurant with chilaquiles which always cheered me up. After, I was walking. Not a big town, Santa Barbara was a romantically beautiful one. And I got to what is probably its prettiest public space (as in a 1000 years later antiquity, its monumental center), the courthouse, museum, library. You know how it is when you’re walking in the remnants of ancient cities. You sense time and history, your own life in a larger perspective.

I’d never been a book boy young. Back then libraries to me were field trips, where teachers took you every so often and I had to go and, there, be told to shut up. I walked into Santa Barbara’s library. There were kind people at desks offering to help me out. Like nurses, or Franciscans blessing this animal, who was me. These library places were still and calm because there was reading going on. People reading, learning, from books. Obvious, right? I know, that simple unless you’d never paid close attention with your brain. For me it was as if I walked into a cathedral, and a sweet hum of wind light was in my ears and turned my eyes both upward and inward.

Okay, that last part didn’t happen thus or at all or with sound effects or a light show. Nothing mystical. But I was cured. I mean, I didn’t like that I stole books. I stopped. Never again. Like that part of my stupid life was done. Coincided, a little, with me needing to use libraries with stranger books than any bookstore would or could have. My love of books and bookstores and especially IV Bookstore (I’m still ashamed, my penance this) blew up —expanded — to libraries great and small. I’ve read in a lot of them now, too. Not just UCSB’s or UCLA’s, not just Santa Barbara’s, but ones in El Paso, Austin, Albuquerque, New York, Stanford, the Library of Congress, all these hexagons (what Borges called them) an entrance to an embracing homeland, where I am both innocent and mature over and over, where, good day or bad, sure or confused, I can always imagine I am going to heaven.


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