A Typophile’s Notes Books

Chopping off the bird: Exciting accounts of rare-book thefts

Can we be outraged about rare-book thefts if we are also enthralled?

In the summer of 1980, a failed art print dealer named Robert Kindred raided several university libraries and stole thousands of rare, often beautiful, lithographic plates. They would be carefully ripped out of these highly valued journals and plate books, many of them hand-coloured, and then Kindred would sell them to other print dealers.

One fetid summer day, Kindred, along with his partner Green, got into a Cadillac loaded with book-theft tools such as razor blades, glass-cutters and flashlights, and began a spree of looting from American libraries across the country as though they were the Bonnie and Clyde of rare-book thieving.

The true story of Kindred and his rare-book crimes is absorbingly told in Torn From Their Bindings by Travis McDade. He is the author of several non-fiction books on rare-book theft from libraries. Published by the University Press of Kansas, Torn from Their Bindings is, I think, his best book. Here investigation, research, and narrative are nimbly balanced, making for crisp, provocative reading.

Wanton pillage

Kindred and Green’s first hit was at Texas A&M University. In the 80s, it was not unusual for libraries to have valuable books on the open stacks (rather than in a limited access Special Collections section) and this allowed both of them to comfortably choose a table, stack the journals and books they had targeted, and leisurely razor out the plates from their bindings. The plates, at least at the start, were mainly from what’s known in the trade as ‘bird books’.

The first journal, Ibis, had been bound so tightly, it was difficult for Kindred to get to the gutter, and he found himself several times coming close to cutting into a plate. Once, when he thought he nearly had it, he realised cutting more would mean chopping off the beak of the bird in the plate, so he let that go. As usual with McDade, the tale is very well told with a focus on the ethical and legal consequences of such wanton pillaging of heritage art.

Raise the bar

One of McDade’s aims in writing about several rare-book thefts is to inform us of how often such book crimes occur, as well as make a plea for book preservation, tightening and updating of library security, and raising the bar on punishment for these crimes that in the past used to be treated with a light court sentence, either of community service or minor fines.

But it occurs to me that quite outside of all these concerns, an ironic moral dilemma may confront the writer of such true accounts of rare-book theft, as well as me, the reader of such accounts: how outraged can we be about the exploits of rare-book thieves if we are also enthralled by them?

The authors of books about true rare-book crimes — whether McDade in Torn From Their Bindings, Allison Bartlett in The Man Who Loved Books Too Much or Michael Blanding in The Map Thief — shape their narratives to hook us into the exploits of these thieves, making us feel the tension, excitement and desire that the thief feels; much in the way Hitchcock made us sweat with the murderer as he planned the crime. Having relished the blow by blow account of a book theft in progress, how to make a sudden switch and express outrage at the pillaging?

Thrilling details

I wonder if the authors who research and document these real-life crime stories shouldn’t at some point in their writings say something about how we all get caught up in this literary narrative vicariously, and that it can’t just be moral outrage we feel at the end of it since we seem to be a bit guilty of having enjoyed it; or at least having found some pleasure in it.

Or else why write it that way? And why expect us to be absorbed and entertained by it? A good case in point is the recent instance of the $8 million theft of rare books from Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, perhaps the most explosive case in book crime history.

It is still unfolding in real time, since the full details are being uncovered day by day: of a partnership between the librarian who would slip out rare treasures to an antiquarian dealer who then sold them at book fairs, to collectors and even unsuspecting dealers.

Now, when you read all these straightforward, factual reports of this enormous book theft that’s flowing in from newspaper accounts and police reports, you fully sense how egregious it is — but spin the same account into a gritty narrative in a book (even as I write this, I’m sure someone is working on one) and you’ll read it as a riveting, thrilling literary crime caper, with far less outrage.

The writer is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 5:07:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/chopping-off-the-bird-exciting-accounts-of-rare-book-thefts/article24854875.ece

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