The 5 Most Stolen Books

Gabe Habash -- July 13th, 2011

Yesterday, historian and author Barry H. Landau was arrested on charges of stealing historical documents, including ones signed by Abraham Lincoln, from the Maryland Historical Society. The arrest eventually led to Landau’s locker, where police found upwards of 60 documents worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Laudau’s heist and the tremendous value of the stolen documents got us thinking about the other end of the literature theft spectrum: what are the most frequently stolen books from bookstores?

The results are surprisingly consistent–the same books and authors keep getting stolen across the country, so much so that many of them are frequently shelved behind the counter. Here are 5 of the most frequently stolen books, with sources listed below.

1. Anything by Charles Bukowski – if one name had to be chosen to top the list, it’s Bukowski. From The New York Observer:

“But when I called up a Barnes & Noble to see if they had a couple of Bukowski titles I was looking for, one of the clerks told me that in order to check I’d have to call one of the cashiers, because all of the Bukowskis had been removed from the open shelves and were kept on a shelf behind the cashier’s desks–out of reach, in other words, of shoplifters.”

2. Anything by William S. Burroughs – In the sources, Burroughs and Bukowski went hand-in-hand, with writer Ron Rosenbaum going so far as to identify them as “The Killer Bees,” and the type of person who steals their books as a “Bukowski Man.” Rosenbaum, from On the Media:

“There’s a certain kind of person who feels that Bukowski and Burroughs and literature that, you know, dwells incessantly on excrement and vomit and the lower depths, is literature about the truth. And I guess they identify with these down-and-out heroes. And so they feel that that somehow validates their desire to just shoplift the books.”

3. On the Road by Jack Kerouac – You may be starting to notice a trend in the topics of these books–the top three all share a similar spirit of “liberation” or, to put it bluntly, sex and drugs. If there is one sociological conclusion we can draw from this list, it’s that the “type” of booklifter is likely young and male, and there’s probably a link between the draw of the content of these top books and the actual act of theft. In other words, someone who wants to commit a reckless act is most interested in reading about reckless acts.

4. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster – The first living author on the list! Along with the works of Raymond Chandler, who was also cited multiple times by booksellers in their most frequently swiped lists, Auster’s New York Trilogy is a noir novel. Bookstore manager Tom Cushman, from On the Media:

“I had a whole stack once of about 20 or 30 copies of The New York Trilogy of his that somebody just came in and just took the whole stack.”

5. Anything by Martin Amis – Another notorious behind the counter dweller, including at St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York. From The New York Times:

“Sometimes the staff isn’t sure whether an author is still popular to swipe until they return their books to the main floor. ‘Amis went out and came right back,’ Michael Russo, the manager, said.”

Honorable mentions: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, anything by Don DeLillo, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman.

Booklifting in libraries is a different story altogether, summed up nicely in On the Media by NPR’s Brooke Gladstone:

“One place where the book thief is more likely to read what he hath took is the public library, and library theft tends to lean toward the practical more than the popular; news you can use, so to speak – how-to books ranging from auto repair to divorce, how to ace the GEDs and The Joy of Sex, also anything – and this is from libraries across the country – anything to do with witchcraft, the occult, UFOs or astrology. And there are some other popular choices for the kleptomaniacally-inclined – the Bible, for instance.”

Sources: New York Times, On the Media, The AWL, The Stranger, The New York Observer.

54 thoughts on “The 5 Most Stolen Books

  1. annie

    My copy of Abbey Hoffman’s…”Steal this book” was stolen from me years ago and I have been thinking about replacing it but, will it then be stolen again?

  2. Pingback: Where is Abbie Hoffman When You Need Him? | Publishing In the 21st Century

  3. Felipe

    As I have said before Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman is probably not so much stolen anymore because it has declined in usefulness as a guide against the Pig Empire in our modern society, which is a pity. If I ever could and wanted to steal any book it would be this one, just for the irony. And talking about irony, I really wanted to know what kind of people steal Bibles.

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