Thou Shalt Not Steal Books

One day this man told those who were listening (or overhearing? I can’t remember him talking like a teacher) that hippies read a book called Stranger in a Strange Land, that it was like the hippie bible. Like nurses, or Franciscans blessing this animal, who was me. My favorite, and only. Nothing mystical. I have no idea how it got in my possession. What is that? I preferred used books, and it had the best quality ones. Mostly scores and stats of especially baseball. I never really read them, just liked the idea of them and getting smart if you had them around. And so it was that there was this one pleasant day I’d come in and was wandering around, checking spines and then back covers and a few interior pages. That had nothing to do with a revolution, since I used to steal shit when I didn’t know that word and it was candy or beer or gin or albums — those were the gentle things. Not a big town, Santa Barbara was a romantically beautiful one. Slow at first, word after word looked up, graph to page to chapter to one after another. Books weren’t an item in my home. And I wanted to read the books for class cover to cover. These were the Vietnam years. I didn’t get the book at all, what it was about, and I never heard the word “grok” with any of the peoples I encountered then or ever. I wasn’t sure what to do next, where to hide (I couldn’t even walk that block for years, pass by), where to be me. He didn’t start screaming or calling me names or yelling about police or arrest, didn’t rush down to shake or lecture me and cause me to run like a fool. Back then libraries to me were field trips, where teachers took you every so often and I had to go and, there, be told to shut up. I was 50% books, both mind and body. Mostly it became stranger books. Of course I read Marx, Hegel, Marcuse and Fanon, the Soledad Brothers, Wright, Cleaver. I played sports. There were kind people at desks offering to help me out. It made me feel smarter and that seemed…well, good. I’ve read in a lot of them now, too. And my world flipped. Because real fast I started changing too. I remember I did like the glossy-cover encyclopedias they sold, I think it was weekly (could have been monthly), in the supermarkets way back then. I got into mass westerns, my keeper favorites those when the lead character was an Indian and particularly a half-breed, my specialty. I wanted smart. I’d never been a book boy young. I didn’t go there so often, just easy to drive to the “city” (I came up in the city of LA) and there was a Mexican restaurant with chilaquiles which always cheered me up. And devastated by the loss. And so it was either Vietnam or, to stall, junior college. I spent hours there learning its sections, trying ones in Spanish, trying ones in French. And I wanted everything I read. I would steal Camus, Rulfo, Hesse, Paz, Beckett, and Dostoyevsky. I mean, I didn’t like that I stole books. Sometimes I didn’t steal, though mostly that could be seen as strategy — buy one or two real cheap, pants an expensive one or two. I might read a sports page. But I did like that I’d read a book (even if I don’t think I did it, really, at least most of it). Only a California type that did things well and thoughtfully and wasn’t messed up as…people like me. You know how it is when you’re walking in the remnants of ancient cities. I didn’t grow up with my father, a WWII Marine sergeant, but even he, like many, wasn’t sure it was a wise move to be a draftee and go there. I walked into Santa Barbara’s library. By that I mean for and in me. Plato to Chuang Tzu to Garcia Marquez and so on. For me it was as if I walked into a cathedral, and a sweet hum of wind light was in my ears and turned my eyes both upward and inward. Hippies, weed, mushrooms, all as common as long hair (acid seemed to be for nerdy or loony whiteboys who didn’t need jobs or come from where they mattered) and those drafted and going, or finally back but a touch wacko and scary. I don’t mean that to imply he was Zen, something as silly as that. I kept my full-time employment and went to community college. Nobody and not me either in this class cared and that’s why we were in it. Books that led to more books. There wasn’t a class I came in knowing anything. Like that part of my stupid life was done. I wanted to learn about hippies because I liked marijuana and music and…all that seemed pretty nice about their cute girls and easy life. But it did help to justify it that I was, uh, stealing for the revolution and not me me me. Once even Porter (I saw all the pretty English majors carrying around her bestselling collection). Things changed right after high school. Probably 25 words a page, very colorful drawings, 30 big pages total? I creeped off, eyes down, a sicko. I didn’t steal it, I say to assure you. I’d persuaded my mom to buy one or two or even three. And I got to what is probably its prettiest public space (as in a 1000 years later antiquity, its monumental center), the courthouse, museum, library. I felt like we knew each other, we approved of each other. There followed books that weren’t assigned. It was like discovering girls for me. People reading, learning, from books. Never again. Then books others told me about. Coincided, a little, with me needing to use libraries with stranger books than any bookstore would or could have. I don’t remember where I was, what section, which books. My love of books and bookstores and especially IV Bookstore (I’m still ashamed, my penance this) blew up —expanded — to libraries great and small. By the time I transferred to UC Santa Barbara, I thought I was a full-fledged intellectual. I don’t know where I got it but I don’t believe I stole it. I wanted a revolution. Except the stealing part. Then ones I found out about. Obvious, right? I always thought he was Japanese. But I was cured. “Never come back here again,” he said sternly. He just stared at me calmly and spoke in a normal voice. In the land I’d come up in, it was stupid sucks (the worst of them big and pissed off for being ugly) into scamming or gaming something, and mostly drunk or getting there. It must have been in a more open area than I usually was. I wanted a few. These library places were still and calm because there was reading going on. The bookstore had an upper floor that surrounded the main floor, like a gigantic, railed, overhead shelf, where we patrons never went. I was starving for it all. Whatever was around, whatever anybody wanted to play. Okay, that last part didn’t happen thus or at all or with sound effects or a light show. I loved his bookstore. So much of my intimate time there. They weren’t often even anything to do with revolution. I was good at that. Not just UCSB’s or UCLA’s, not just Santa Barbara’s, but ones in El Paso, Austin, Albuquerque, New York, Stanford, the Library of Congress, all these hexagons (what Borges called them) an entrance to an embracing homeland, where I am both innocent and mature over and over, where, good day or bad, sure or confused, I can always imagine I am going to heaven. That want to own that book you read, like it’s yours? After, I was walking. SEPTEMBER 22, 2017

This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. I know, that simple unless you’d never paid close attention with your brain. You sense time and history, your own life in a larger perspective. And maybe I’d been getting so comfortable in there, so used to doing what I did, that I forgot where I was and what I was doing wasn’t good:   two books down my pants and I looked up (was something said, or all non-verbal alarms?) and the owner was glaring at me. My favorite bookstore was the Isla Vista Bookstore. I loved it. I was such a regular I’d often go there and find a new subject or book and read right there. I put the stolen books back on their shelf. How many hours or days later I don’t remember, but I was in downtown Santa Barbara. I did have a child’s picture book of Moby Dick. I found I liked all kinds of subjects and titles. I was truly ashamed. I stopped. He couldn’t help liking me too — he was a bookstore owner, I was the epitome of who and what they were for. I thought the teacher was a drunk. And I stole books. I’d read a book my senior year — by that I mean I tried to — because I was in this special two-hour flunky English class. 15,   Revolution
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I wasn’t a book boy.