Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Books I Have Stolen: Cleopatra, the Story of a Queen, Viking Press 1937
This is the first book I ever stole. I found it in a model home, in a neighborhood we would ultimately move to the summer before my freshman year of high school. Initially I just pulled it off a bookcase to read while I hung around waiting for adults to conduct their business, and returned it before we left. The next time, I snuck it home with me, then replaced it again when we returned from a subsequent meeting, library-style. Finally, when it looked like the meetings were over, and the model home would no longer be accessible, I broke down and took it again, this time with no intention of replacing it.
Until then, I’d never stolen anything in my entire life, except for the one time I took a piece of gum from an open pack at the checkout line in the grocery store when I was five. My mom caught me and I felt a huge, crushing shame that I didn’t care to experience again.
I didn’t feel that with this book. This was a book that needed to be saved. It was so old — and weird! — by modern standards. Titled “Cleopatra,” translated by Bernard Miall, New York: The Viking Press, 1937. I could barely read the cover and spine but I loved the look and feel of it.
The weird part was the story itself. Told from Cleopatra’s point of view, the story opens when she is fourteen years old, childishly aware of her beauty but interested in geography, the ocean, and the art of politics. I’d never read a story told as if it were history, in the first person perspective, about such a notable figure. It’s peppered with quotes from Goethe that say things like, “When a woman takes on some of man’s attributes, she must triumph; for she intensifies her other advantages by an access of energy, the result is a woman as perfect a can be imagined.”
I didn’t feel bad about stealing the book because it was brittle and water-damaged, and nobody was loving it over at the model home. The pages crackled like leaves when you turned the pages. Nobody would notice it was gone. That didn’t seem right.
I feel less guilty in my adulthood knowing that this book isn’t completely out of circulation, and isn’t expensive to buy a copy like this from a rare book dealer, in fact, it costs less than a new hardback would (from anywhere but WalMart, ouch). From the two covers I see on Goodreads, it must have had a least a couple softcover editions. It has no ISBN but is listed with the Library of Congress.
I can’t believe I’ve never wondered when ISBNs started. Huh. Interesting.
I still feel unsettled by weird old books. Whenever people talk about books out of print, but not in the public domain, I think of the books I’ve secretly stolen and loved. Everyone’s worried about what will be lost due to piracy. I worry about what will be lost due to short-sightedness.
It makes me crazy to think that bits of culture, voices from the past, can just disappear without a flutter. Only with books can you hear a voice directly from thousands of years ago. I’m no more comfortable with digitization being in the hands of one single company than anybody else, but I don’t think we should hold off on digitizing whatever we can. I need to educate myself about the archival projects going on around the world, to reassure or worry myself.
Over the years I stole more books for various reasons, and I’m going to post the others, along with detailed photos on flickr, scattered over the course of this month, to think about ideas of book piracy, theft, demand, and preservation.
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