In Defense of Book-Thieving: A Confession, and a Request

Word around Venny McPulitzer this morning was that Executive Ed's display on Friday was some kind of prank to see if he could rile up "the quiet intern" (humph! quiet interns are deadly INTERNS!) INTERN is feeling a little silly for taking the whole thing so seriously. However, INTERN suspects Executive Ed does have some kind of cryptic beef with the MacArthur Foundation—an estranged genius wife, perhaps?—that may have played into his response.

In any event, today is a new day, and INTERN has other things on her mind: notably, the spiritual necessity of occasionally pilfering books.

As a general rule, INTERN is opposed to book-thieving of any sort. Stealing from a bookstore is never justified (even if it's from an "evil chain") because it's like shooting a BB gun at an almost-extinct bird. Stealing from a library isn't cool because it's stealing from Society.

But now and then, when one is at a friend, relative, or acquaintance's house, or in a non-commercial public space where used books are present, one stumbles across a book (an old book! a scrappy book! a book nobody would ever notice was gone and would probably be thrown out anyway!) that suddenly becomes absolutely critical to one's continued existence on the planet.

As INTERN sees it, pilfering such a book is OK if one's spiritual need for the book vastly exceeds the need of the book's real or presumed owner, and if the likelihood of the book's absence being noticed is close to zero.

Example: This weekend, INTERN smuggled home a book about high-yield container gardening from an acquaintance's house, where it was dying a slow death in a cardboard box in the basement. INTERN's spiritual need for information about how many carrots she could grow in a Rubbermaid box was so urgent, INTERN could practically hear angels singing when she fingered its pages. To ask to borrow the neglected book would not be sufficient—like an international kidnapper, INTERN required full custody, and right away.

On another occasion, INTERN's soul was transported by a battered copy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues she found at a hostel while hitchhiking, and in the space of fifteen seconds had hidden it in the bottom of her sleeping bag.

Sometimes, a certain book feels so necessary to INTERN's life that silly considerations about "ownership" and "not sneaking through other people's basement bookshelves like some kind of weirdo" just don't enter the picture at all.

Techie Boyfriend finds INTERN's mystical justifications for her book-thieving ways outrageous, and has suggested that perhaps INTERN should take the risk of asking for the books she feels she needs so badly.

So INTERN would like to hear from others who share her inclinations. Which books have you acquired through morally dubious means, and what emotions propelled you to do so? Confess, or INTERN will be left feel rather awkward about the whole thing.

Comments

  1. I find the anecdote amusing and should it occur under my own roof I would turn a blind eye. But if you asked for it, I would just give it to you. I swear.

    I think the thrill is in the stealing. Once said book is safely "liberated", do you still feel such a soulful draw? Or does it become merely an instrument of learning?

    INTERN, I might have to side with Techie Boyfriend on this one.

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  2. Techie boyfriend is right. Ask and ye shall receive. Especially in my house. Otherwise you leave me, six years later, covered in dust, on my hands and knees, suffering from an asthma attack saying, "I swear I own that book!"

    I took a book from my sister once. We shared a house at the time, can you even steal from your own house? Then I took it with me to college and never read it. I STILL have guilt. Women Who Run With Wolves, if you must know.

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  3. Well, I once had a book from school so long that I just kept it, but that's about the only one.

    I think I have to side with Techie Boyfriend, too. If books are metaphorically speaking golden, then you're basically stealing treasure. This makes you a pirate and, while that is cool, it's not precisely condonable. Asking, on the other hand, makes you a decent member of society which, while less cool, is condonable.

    Also, how can you know beforehand that such a book is hidden on a basement bookshelf, such that it can justify your creeping there?

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  4. I have, in my possession, several volumes pilfered from the "lending library" in the coop building where I used to live. This was a rickety bookshelf in the roach infested laundry room. I donated many more books than I ever removed, and none of my contributions were science books in German, like those freaks in 511 who just couldn't be bothered to find a better outlet for their castoffs.

    I don't know if that really gets to the heart of the matter. It was more of an oversight than a deep need.

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  5. Simon occasionally pilfers books from people. He got his copy of the Red Dwarf book that way, and considers it his greatest triumph. He stole 100 Years of Solitude from his brother, and regrets it not in the least. (This may be an exaggeration: his brother may have given him that book. Along with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.) Simon is shameless about "borrowing" books should he deem it necessary. He also finds it amusing to refer to himself in the 3rd person.

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  6. I am ashamed to admit that I once took a two-inch by three-inch book of quotes about cats from my grandma. It was literally the size of a matchbox. I needed it. I needed it desperately. It was so bizarre and so whimsical to find this little book of quotes from feline fanatics that I had to have it. My grandma is obsessed with cats and undoubtably has nine million other cat books. Regardless, the guilt remains.

    (But omg it's so cute :D)

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  7. When I was in high school I stole a copy of If I Were You by Joan Aiken from the school library. I loved that book so much and had no idea how to go about getting my own copy. This was before the internet and Amazon existed. I checked it out a million times. Then one night I was in the library computer lab working on the yearbook. It was just so easy to sneak it out. I still feel guilty about it, but never did return it, even after I started working at the school after college.

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  8. I was once at a party on Beacon Hill, found The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on a shelf, and when I later got drunk and started reading through it, and saw it was actually a stolen library book, well...

    Another time I was moving boxes for a company to a warehouse for storage, and each time I carried a box in through the lobby, my eyes were drawn to this little shelf of about ten old hardcover books, up high on a wall. Since one was an old medical book, it was obvious (or at least it seemed obvious at the time) that they were just for decoration, and so on my next trip out I snagged a copy of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. And really enjoyed it.

    I'm not advocating anyone doing the same, but anyone who truly loves books can't always resist such temptation. Heck, even Louis L'Amour regretted not stealing a rare book he once saw at a foreign library. And as Laurel mentions, half the thrill is in the acquisition.

    As Twain himself said , "I know the taste of the watermelon which has been honestly come by, and I know the taste of the watermelon which has been acquired by art. Both taste good, but the experienced know which tastes best."

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  9. Darn it, I'm not cool enough to be a book thief!
    Instead, I'm the ineffective pusher, begging people to take my books. "You've GOT to read this!" is my constant refrain, but alas, nobody listens. And now I've got no one to talk to about the amazing, life-changing titles that rocked my world!

    If anything, I'm wishing someone would come and steal *MY* books, LOL!

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  10. Techie boyfriend speaks sense, but I would still take the book: I just can't pretend that I would just be borrow it and, after a certain point, isn't the poor neglected book no longer the owner's? It is mine, precious, tssssst!

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  11. Oh my....Team Techie Boyfriend is racking up an alarming number of points! INTERN hopes he doesn't read these comments, or she will have to admit that maybe she is sort of wrong!

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  12. Christian: INTERN can never know beforehand that such a book is in a basement, but INTERN is the type who finds herself sneaking around people's basements ANYWAY (usually while trying to escape from a party).

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  13. Intern, fear not! I am a kindred spirit. And I bet there are others, though they are too shy to say so.

    I have... hmm... a ridiculous rotten pseudo-memoir about a crime filched from the sad library on a luxury cruise ship, which I hadn't finished, so I just too along. And a very old ratty paperback version of Tarzan from a vacation home we rented one summer week on the Vineyard. And I think also a couple of books from friends who wrote their names on the title page and then drifted out of my life, to whom I'd be happy to return the tomes, but I don't know where to find the owners!

    Books have a life of their own. Sometimes they have been orphaned, and we who need them are simply giving them a more loving home.

    But I suggest you look into that website about leaving books in public places with notes so that others may discover and enjoy them. Surely there are lots of books being given away at Old McVenerable... though they are probably not old!

    Carry on!

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  14. INTERN: The basement is the best place to be at a party. In the basement, your drinking is not interrupted by small talk or an invitation to play pool on the rocking pool table recently purchased with a post dated third party check by the host of the party.

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  15. I am looking right now at the book I most recently pilfered. Without remorse, I must say. It is on the bottom shelf of my bedside table, sticking out from under Own Your Own Shadow and The Rhyming Dictionary. I liberated it over Christmas from a beach house in SC. It was written by my best friend's cousin – she showed it to me in the bookstore last summer! – who got a 3-book deal. I haven't read it. I don't know that I ever will, as it turns out to not really be my thing. But of course I had to take it home. Trust yourself, dear Intern. You are a good person. Books need loving homes too.

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  16. I have a habit of marching up to the owner of a neglected book and announcing, "I am stealing this from you, since you don't love it." If said owner seems shocked, I add, "Please, may I have it?" This has never failed to make me feel like an accomplished pirate, since they don't have a habit of sneaking ... or at least, the swashbuckling ones don't. However, there are a few books in my collection which I may have borrowed once. And if the owner has forgotten ... well, so have I?

    And I agree that a basement sounds like a much more pleasant place than the more conventional locations to spend time at a party, especially a party full of people. If they are aliens and misfits, it might be more interesting to stay around just to see what will happen next.

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  17. Not a shared inclination, except by rare accident, and a tendency to loathe anyone who doesn't return borrowed books, myself included.

    I've one borrowed book on my shelves waiting for the day the loaner and I come into contact again. She's out of the loop so far, or I am, that our sphere's aren't in alignment. It so happens to be her copy of _Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Out on loan to me since the late '70s.

    I've one book out on loan that's been out almost as long, and the borrower as equally out of reach. Robert Graves _The White Goddess_ first edition hardcover. The borrower borrowed it for her undergraduate thesis on women's roles in literature. In the whirlwind of life, she and I lost touch before she returned it. I miss it so. I hope we meet again.

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  18. I share the inclination, INTERN. But I would use the word "save" instead of steal. I would take a book if, like the one you "saved" from the box in the basement, it needed liberation. I also share your disdain for people stealing from bookstores; that is never ok.

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  19. INTERNET READER suggests that INTERN should have offered to buy the book vanquished to the box. Since it was banished, INTERN most likely could have owned it without moral blemish for a buck. Likewise, INTERN might think of taking a "pass it along" book to such places like hostels where you might find a book worth pilfering where you could then leave another book in exchange.

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  20. I found a German text book that my Dad borrowed in the 60's. I consoled myself that it would probably be more trouble to try to get the library to take it back, than to keep it.

    I have never committed book theft, but when I was younger I got into the habit of buying books I wanted to read for my friends. I'd either pre-read them or borrow them when they finished. :(

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  21. I had a friend once who insisted she stole something from everyone she knew, just to see if they'd noticed. I tried it out once, with an incense holder. The owner was so tickled by the trick she refused to let me return it.

    Unfortunately, I never intentionally stole books. I unintentionally kept books we shared custody of, and was paid back by lending out books that never came home. I've bought 3 replacement copies of I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone since the book came out...

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  22. There's no stealing more delicious than taking something that clearly isn't valued by its owner, especially an old forgotten book. I've 'half-inched' books from B&Bs and holiday homes before, though only the tattiest most down-at-dog-ear paperbacks. Now they are mine.

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  23. Sometimes I remove a book from the library of the publishing house where I work. I promise myself that I will return it, but I never do. That is very wrong. I don't care.

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  24. I borrowed so many books in high school that my first-borrowed ones were never requested back as they lost my first borrowers' card (years ago, computers were too expensive for mere libraries). So I have a well-thumbed hardback of The Old Man and the Sea. I inadvertently stole How to Shit in the Woods from a cottage I stayed at. I plan to return it. OTOH, someone has my copy of Cryptonomicon, and I know who it is...

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  25. I borrowed a copy of Jurassic Park from friends of my parents. We were at their place and everyone else was either much older or much younger than me, so I started to read it. At the end of the night I asked if I could borrow it to finish it.

    This was probably ten years ago. I really should give it back, especially since I now have a husband who has a copy of the book. So we have two Jurassic Parks sitting on our shelf. But I'd be kind of embarrassed to front up after all this time. They've probably forgotten about it. That's what I'll tell myself anyway...

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  26. I maintain that none of the above instances constitutes book-thieving.

    Aforementioned high-yield container gardening book was clearly "adopted" by INTERN. "Rescued," even, from a neglectful--even abusive--former home. This was a good deed, and INTERN should feel suitably proud.

    Similarly, taking books from a hostel is clearly an accepted practice as a)backpackers are poor, and b)most books are illigitimate anyway (photocopied and stapled together--especially in places like Cambodia).

    Clearly there has been no book thieving by INTERN. Rest easy.

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  27. I'm with INTERN on this one all the way.
    There is a something about pilfering anything (well it should be small and insignificant rather than the crown jewels) that adds a charge to said object.
    For example, when I'm shooting photos like a maniac in Paris, if someone gives me permission, it's like meh :(
    But stealing shots in a forbidden pastry shop - ah the thrill of it!
    So the odd book, lifted serendipitiously, becomes an instant treasured item - I'm with you on this.
    And the serendipity factor adds to the pleasure. Like you would never have considered growing a carrot but this book called your name, and now you're on a carrot-growing mission.
    Voila! c'est la vie

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  28. My guess is that the Executive Ed just wanted to see himself mentioned in your blog.

    (How does Venny McP feel about the blog, anyway?)

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  29. Basically it's like rescuing a puppie, but in this case an unread book saved from obscurity and neglect.
    How can this be wrong?
    What if they said no?
    Do they read yr blog???

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  30. Worry not, dear INTERN! As long as you leave a beloved book behind (say, at a restaurant, hostel, or vacation beach house) your karmic debt will be repaid. Books are meant to be shared and loved, not left to languish in musty cardboard boxes. You did the right thing.

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  31. I once mentored some fifth grade kids at a school near where I worked, and we were reading THE GIVER by Lois Lowry. The mentorship ended and I still had my copy of the book, and then the school year ended... and somehow I never got around to giving it back. That was about 12 years ago. I recently found it in a dusty box in my basement. Even "stealing" that book by accident makes me feel bad. Maybe I'll donate it to our school library to unburden myself of this guilt that INTERN has triggered. Thanks INTERN. I have donated so many boxes of books to the library book sale, however, that hopefully my karmic balance is leaning in the right direction.

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  32. This is off subject, but I just visisted here because of something Nathan Bransford said...and (to quote an actor's lines in a remake movie of an old TV show) "I like it here! It's exciting!"

    I'll be back. Thanks!

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  33. I'd be most upset to have one of my precioussssess bookssss stolen. But I'd likely give it to you if you wanted it that badly. Or we could call it a forever-term loan.

    I can't think of a book I've acquired by dubious means...oh, wait, there was the time I liked a book so much and couldn't find it so I told the libarary I lost it. Don't have the book any more, don't remember what it was, but I do remember they charged me 3x the cover price. Teach me to do that again, lol!

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  34. Being an overseas student, I occasionally bring back school library books to read... and forget to bring them back. There was also a time when I packed a book from the cruise ship's library. I'm not sure my spirit really need Ellen MacArthur's (!!)biography. I only read it once. (and judging by the thickness of the layer of dust on the cover, nobody else had read it on the ship. So I didn't feel too bad.)

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  35. When I lived in Japan a number of years ago, English books were a precious commodity, and coming upon a GOOD one was like finding a cold beer in the proverbial desert. So I confess to stealing a couple of D.H. Lawrence books from our ESL school's staff library, as well as a travel memoir or two. But! I replaced them with books of my own when I left -- a spare copy of As I Lay Dying, a very well-worn copy of Bridget Jones that had been passed around my roommates, two Douglas Coupland novels, and my dad's old copy of Catch-22. I don't know why I left the last one there -- I'd give the stolen books back just to get that particular copy of Catch-22 back again.

    And in the books I *want* to steal, but won't category: my mother-in-law has a FIRST PRINTING of The Catcher in the Rye. It's just sitting there in her library, far too close to her vast collection of Danielle Steel books! She knows I salivate over it every time I'm there.

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  36. I once took a copy of The Golden Bough from a book fair. Now, I was volunteering there, and they said I could have one book, I just don’t think they expected me to take that one.

    I totally did not wash my dirty, thieving hands eight times when I got home.


    However, I'm going to concur with Techie Boyfriend. At least get turned down before turning to crime.

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  37. I stole The Confederacy of Dunces from a friend's ex-girlfriend's belongings, which he had in a box to give back to her. I kind of figured she'd think he stole it out of pettiness, and what can I say, I needed it.

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  38. My in-laws are notoriously LIGHT FINGERED when it comes to my books and CDs so I've had to resort to dubious methods to deter their thieving inclinations. I can't tell you about them but suffice it to say that now that the police aren't involved (!) we have a library system where they can borrow said books or music as long as they give them back. If not, then they go on the MOST WANTED list and are BANNED from getting within 100 feet of my possessions.

    All that to say, I'm with techie boyfriend--just ask. Usually the answer will be yes.

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  39. I guess I would have offered to pay for it. But then, what if they didn't know you were rummaging around in their basement bastion of books? That could be awkward.

    Maybe you were right to just take it.

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  40. When I was a tiny girl, I stole a magazine (a copy of Humpty Dumpty) from my school classroom. I just never had time to read it in class. And it was such a miracle object -- a magazine filled with stories that came to your house. I imagined that rich kids had tons of them. I smuggled it home and read it over and over...committing every story to memory. Even the rhyming one about daylight savings time. But I felt horribly guily so I never did it again. Still, it started my life-long love of magazines.

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  41. I teach high school English and I think just about every book I bring in for my students to "borrow" never finds its way back to me. In fact, I've bought some of the same books multiple times! Oh well...hopefully they are well loved in their new homes!

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  42. I adopted an excellent, ragged copy of Alice in wonderland/Through the Looking Glass with Tenniel illustrations when I was a kid. I found it in our study and brought it to my room, brought it with me to college, and we bonded. A few years ago my (much) older sister was visiting, spotted it on my shelf and said "hey, that's mine!" and that was that. It was like giving up your child for adoption and then asking for 'em back when they're a teenager.

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  43. In the third grade, I borrowed two books from my teacher's classroom, but failed to return them before the end of the school year. Such was my terror of this teacher (who really was awful, by all accounts), that I had visions of her storming into my house, interrogating me, and wisking the books away, leaving me in a heap of trouble.

    So I got rid of the incriminating "evidence" by throwing the books in the creek.

    Ironically, one of the books was Beverly Cleary's "Emily' Runaway Imagination".

    Of course, I also have several volumes that were borrowed and never returned. Note to the wise: don't lend me books. (To my credit, I am fair about lending books and not hounding to get them back, either.)

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  44. So there's this book I read as a teenager, "Blood Sport" by Robert F. Jones. It rewired my whole brain for the better. I lent it to (okay, forced it upon) untold numbers of people, used it as a barometer of if we would get along or not. Then it disappeared, along with a small, dog-eared piece of my soul. I spent the next couple of decades searching used book stores in vain. It became like a holy grail to me. Somehow, buying it from Amazon would be cheating. Then one day I'm at my brother's house, helping him prepare to move, and I find, stuffed in a box, the book. My book, to be precise. I quietly slipped it into my coat and made a lame excuse to leave early, just so I could start reading. Happily, it's just as good as I remember.

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  45. I "accidentally" steal books because no matter how good my intentions are, I can never manage to return a book lent to me :(. I still have a book a pastor gave me. Yeah. I stole a book from a pastor.

    Is there a special level of hell for accidental book thieves?

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  46. My sisters and I are constantly stealing each others books. It got so bad with accusations flying about that my oldest sister had us all come to her apartment and sort through her books, with the understanding that we would take what was ours and never complain about her stealing from us again. I must confess, however, that took a very liberal view on what I claimed as my own. ;)

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  47. Techie boyfriend is right...stealing is stealing.

    Think of it this way: if you were to ask, and they said yes, then there was no harm in asking. If you were to ask, and they said no, wouldn't you be glad you asked, rather than taking something they genuinely wanted?

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  48. This is a deeply philosophical question - of what does a book consist, its physical manifestation or the abstract ideas contained within? If you had stood and read how many carrots you can grow in a Rubbermaid box (what on earth is that? sounds like an aid for lonely old men) would that have been any less of a theft than stealing the physical object itself, the book?

    Alternatively what is the difference between theft and 'borrowing' a book on a permanent basis, or until found out? Is the book in any way damaged by your eyes sweeping across the type?

    I have a full bookcase dedicated to all those books I have borrowed, albeit officially, as I have an empty bookcase dedicated to all those books lent.

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  49. Abbie Hoffman would be proud of you.

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  50. Looks like lots of people had things to get off their chests, eh?

    INTERN, attempting to escape from the basement is almost exactly the best possible excuse to win my sympathies. The only better excuse would be if you were 'rescuing' some adorable (or hideous) animal or small child from the same party.

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  51. Speaking of basement escapes, did you know that Patti Smith met her husband that way? Well, actually she was escaping out the back, but I've always remembered that 'cause I could relate.

    In fact, at that party on Beacon Hill mentioned above, I later ended up in the basement as well, pouring through a stack of old records, while a friend sat in the corner, having a long, heart-to-heart talk with a friend in California (on long-distance rates). I don’t recall us ever being asked back.

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  52. A friend of mine loved (and still loves) Even Cowgirls get the Blues so much that she, to this day, can recite entire paragraphs!

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  53. When I was an exchange student in Austria in college I stole a copy of American Gods from the American Institute of Vienna. It was a pretty battered copy sitting in the "lending library," which was as I recall full of really old non-fiction books and this one, beautiful gem. I had meant to bring it back, but after reading it maybe 10 times in a row over the course of the 4 months I was there, I just couldn't bear to part with it. I later learned that the institute shut down a couple of years later, so I probably saved the book from a garbage can. Go me!

    Word verification word: beasteri - where people who steal books go when they die?

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  54. I'm with INTERN. Some books need liberation. I used to steal books from the high school library. Like carrieb, I had no idea where to find some of them before the advent of the internet. One was a much-neglected copy of Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue, which set off my love of linguistics. Inadvertently stole a book from the public library not too long ago. A lovely historical examination of Robin Hood that hadn't been checked out in years. I got it home only to realize that they'd forgotten to scan it. As far as the library knew, it was still on the shelf. Too great a temptation for a book thief...

    I must say, though, that I do feel guilty about those books I've borrowed and haven't gotten back to their owners. It's always because I have lost touch with the owners, but it still makes me feel bad when I walk by and see them on the shelf.

    How are those Rubbermaid carrots?

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  55. I am staunchly team intern.

    It's never cool to steal from bookstores or libraries, but I grew up in a household that would pack up it's two parents, five children, and various pets into a minivan and run away to a resort of rent-a-houses on a chilly northern-california beach near Mendocino (I almost died on this beach. For realz). I stole many books from various houses all over this area from the time I was a wee-one all the way into pseudo-adulthood. I believe I owe a copy of Cold Mountain, The Secret Garden, The Never-Ending Story,The Horse Whisperer, Whirligig, and various other oddities to such thieveries.

    Also, I stole a copy of the screenplay for Barfly from a local coffee shop.

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  56. I admit to stealing a book from the Library, but said Library had had a flood following it's roof being ripped off in a storm and the book was put down as lost stock and, presumably, claimed on the insurance, so I'm not feeling too guilty. It is now dry and warm, sitting amonst a large pile of books beside the radiator.
    I have also liberated a book from my parents' house, where it was being ignored in a dusty bookshelf (ok, I confess, my dad might have been in the imddle of reading it, but yah boo sucks, it's mine now.)

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