Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Map Thief and Book Collecting

I picked up Michael Blandings's The Map Thief  in the airport yesterday to read on the plane and highly recommend it.  It's about, well, a man who steals maps from Yale, Harvard, the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, and the British Museum, among others, and gets away with it for many, many years.

Having just been to one of these archives, I was ridiculously excited to see it appear in the book--way more excited than the exceedingly unhappy librarians were to discover the thefts, to be sure.  We have a thing in my family, sort of a joke and sort of not, of saying "I've been there!" when a place shows up in the news, so of course I had to bring out the book and show it to the family, as in "I know that reading room! I know that court building! I know that coffee shop they're talking about!"

This book, like The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, tries to get at the heart of why someone--specifically, Forbes Smiley, the thief--would do this.  Part of it is the old Willy Sutton thing about why he robbed banks: "Because that's where the money is." After first making himself an expert in maps pretty much for the love of them, Smiley stole from archives because that's where the maps were, and if he could get $50,000 to $100,000 for one, it seemed worth it to him.  It's a bit like the creepy art underworld in The Goldfinch. He'd fold up the map, put it in his coat pocket, wave to the librarian, and leave. 

But there was more to it than just the money.  Like a lot of other criminals, he was able to rationalize what he did by saying, "Well, people don't appreciate my great expertise. The libraries aren't paying enough attention to these maps. By removing them from atlases and selling them to people making real collections, they'll be studied much more."

I was surprised to learn that, as an expert on maps, he apparently wasn't subjected to the processes that other researchers go through, from filling out forms for each set of materials studied to having the guard rifle through his papers and laptop when he left the archives. And you archive hounds will cringe not only when he steals the maps but when he touches some of them up to make them more salable.

I was thinking about this when reading Historiann's post on book collecting, in which she wonders whether lit people get into book collecting.  While I'm acquainted with some serious Grolier Club-type collectors, I wouldn't say I'm a real collector.  I do, however, try to get first or early editions of one or two of the authors I study, because there's nothing like being able to hold and read from your own first edition, even if it's not what a real collector would consider to be in great condition.  You can go to your shelves in the middle of the night and it's there, without a library tag telling you to bring it back on such and such a date.  It's yours.

The thing is, some of us have the book gene but not the collecting gene, so to speak.  We want the book because we feel a connection to the author, but we lack the inclination as well as the money ($25,000 is the going rate for a well-known classic by one of the authors) to watch eBay, scope out auction houses, and keep track of prices as if we're primarily interested in them as an investment, because we're not.

And when we buy books, like Tom Bredehoft (whom Historiann cites), it's often because we think they're interesting or we may write about them some day. I have a couple of schoolbooks, one a grammar book, from the 1820s or 1830s, and they are not in great shape (cover missing) and are probably not valuable, but they are interesting and I enjoy looking at them. I don't want to search for perfect copies of them. It's the interior, rather than the exterior, that interests me, but both are important for the reading experience.


Historiann said...

Hey Undine--welcome back from your research trip, and thanks for the link!

Tom left a comment on my blog to the effect that collecting doesn't need to be collecting books (or maps) of great value--just things that make sense to you and that you curate for your own scholarly purposes and/or entertainment, or both. I agree with him--and I also share your interest in your early 19th C grammar book! (That's the kind of thing that Tom loves to pick up and think about too.)

I left a comment on your previous post, which I really regret missing last week b/c I would have loved to have been in a conversation with the rest of you.

undine said...

Thanks, Historiann! I agree with both of you on the collect and think about thing.