The Book Thief: A Literary Confession
When I was in fourth grade, I stole a book.
I won't say it's the only time I've been a thief. As a youngster, I once "borrowed" a few pennies from my grandmother's table when she and her daughters were playing penny-ante Boo-Ray. In fifth grade once I picked up fifteen cents, the exact amount of spare change you got back from a dollar from the lunch cashier at St. Catherine, telling myself that found change on the ground was fair game, even the ground right underneath the monkeybars right after classmates had been hanging upside down there. As an adult in the workforce, I've committed my share of "oops, I cooked too many hot dogs, these will have to be thrown out" and I've taken home the odd office supply item too.
But only in one case did I steal a thing outright, with no rationalization prepared, with no contrived justification in my head but only a blatant desire for a thing that wasn't mine. And it was a book.
There was this battered copy of Edmund Wallace Hildick's The Active-Enzyme, Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch amongst the random collection of middle grade books in my home room. It was on the bottom shelf, half-invisible due to the dog-eared state of its spine. Already a committed fantasy reader, attracted to stories about kids and magic, I settled down on the carpet to read as much as I could before my block of free time came to an end. I read it over several days, nibbling it and biting it and swallowing it whole over a series of free periods. I loved it.
I loved it so much I took it home with me and never brought it back.
Actually, depending on how you count vices, this book was the occasion of more than one.
Arrogance, for instance. Thinking that what I enjoyed must necessarily be univerally enjoyable, I eagerly brought it to the teacher's attention when she was next looking for read-aloud material. Shame and embarrassment soon followed when my classmates bored of it and the teacher abandoned it before the end of Chapter 1.
Then there's witchcraft itself, and heresy, and disobeying one's parents. This was the book that firmly cemented in my head the notion that casting spells was something I could really do, thus laying the groundwork for my discovery of witchcraft as part of a religion people actually practiced. Which the Catholic Church was probably not down with, and my parents definitely weren't down with.
See, unlike most stories of youngsters doing magic I'd read until then, this one was realistic. Hildick's protagonist, Alison, is neither spirited away to Narnia nor visited by fairies nor given supernatural gifts. Instead, she finds a book forgotten on a shelf and begins experimenting with the magic spells described therein. The synchronicity wasn't lost on me: I, too, had found a book forgotten on a shelf, just as though, meant for me alone, it were disguising itself against other curious eyes. And the spells Alison performs are clearly spelled out on the page, easy for a reader to try -- complete with Alison cavalierly substituting whatever came to hand when the grimoir called for things she couldn't find. And the author left the results of her spells deliberately ambiguous: coincidence, or magic? You decide.
Remember the furor over kids turning to witchcraft over Harry Potter? I found that ridiculous from the start. Any kid who tries to emulate Rowling's wizards will be disappointed on the first attempt. No, if you want a book that gives real-world-followable instructions on magic that you can convince yourself actually worked, and bears certain resemblances to modern-day Wicca, that's Hildick's book.
So. Fiercely wanting to hold onto my newly found witchcraft instruction manual, freshly convinced that I was alone in valuing the story, and worried that the teacher, having been made aware of its existence and its universal disapprobation (well, near-universal, but I was a known freak; I liked Neil Diamond and I was a girl who played with Transformers), might cull the shelves and make the book vanish forever... well, I simply preempted her, and performed the vanishing act myself.
I still have it today, even more battered than ever, squirreled away in a chest of precious things. I get it out and reread it periodically. It's a damn good book. Hildick died in 2001, recently enough for me to feel keenly the regret of never getting a chance to tell him how that book changed my life. And it did. The witchcraft thing? Superficial. I'd have gotten there eventually. No, there were more important effects. In that book, Hildick spoke to the pre-teen's constant undercurrent of frustration in a mature flowing language that challenged the young reader to competence. He didn't talk down to me; he understood me, and he respected me. In under 300 pages, in a book published three years before I was born, he conveyed to me what it was to be me.
Being a child means being surrounded by, ruled by, and often belittled by a sea of adult voices. Those adult voices said that if I thought I was being treated unfairly, I was wrong and it would all make sense when I was older. They said that if I was unhappy it was because I brought it on myself, usually by being disrespectful. They that if I was frustrated I must be overreacting. If A then B. QED.
But Hildick created the character of Alison, and from the first page her frustrations are respected even when they are overreactions. Her sense of injustice is validated even when no one really can be accused of being unfair. In writing Alison, he told me I was not alone. I wasn't a freak. Gods, it was good to hear.
Why am I telling this story now?
Well, see, I lied way up there in the third paragraph, about that being the only time I stole something outright. Sort of. I mean, had I told this story this morning it would still have been true. Um. Except not if I hadn't been very good Tuesday afternoon...
I confess. I have discovered in myself a disturbing tendency to wish to liberate books. Specifically, neglected books. Books being misused as decorations. While others steal coffee cups from Denny's, I'm tempted by the monogrammed blank hardbacks in the Banana Republic outlet in the Lakeside Mall. (Why does a clothing store have a decorative pile of books? And why not use real books from a library sale? And how cool would it be to use one of their blanks as my next dream diary?) The obviously valuable collectables getting dusty at the Dark Horse, those I don't think I'd touch...
...but this book that's now in my canvas tote bag, it was published in 1981, it has library markings all over it down to the shelving sticker on its spine, it was hardly a valuable collectable, and it wanted so badly to be read.
When I was at my cousin's pre-wedding cocktail party at a French Quarter restaurant, I stole a book...