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Steal this book: How Patti Smith made me cry this morning.

October 3, 2011

Awwww: Patti Smith as a little girl.

As an American man, I seldom cry. That is if you discount movies, some TV shows, the occasional commercial, certain pictures, some songs, and this brief essay by Patti Smith on book thievery.

Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the gaudy author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20. More details to come. Watch this space!

I hesitate to ruin the Patti Smith essay for you by saying too much about it, aside from announcing that it appears in the upcoming issue of The New Yorker, and describes an incident from her childhood in working-class New Jersey, circa 1957, when she stole a book from the local grocery store.

Let’s see, what else can I safely discuss? She was 10 years old. The nature of the book will surprise and charm you. Smith’s use of the verb “covet” elevates the entire piece. Clearly, she’s a writer who knows the power of a well-chosen verb. She brings into sharp focus a time and place that seem at one and the same time ancient and recent, alien and familiar.

Her deft portraits of the people in the essay — her mother, a store employee — are nuanced and vivid — I know these people!

I’m a decade younger than Smith, but I lusted for books, too. Once I pitched such a fit in a department store, pouting and wheedling for hours, that my parents finally forked over the $2.19 for a remaindered copy of a Three Investigators book, a mystery series I was rabid for around the third grade.

Back in the car, where my parents made a surprise presentation of the book to me, I felt only a little guilt for the complete lack of character that had gotten it into my hands, the embarrassing public display of bratitude, a mere tinge of remorse for my resolution, taken but moments before, to hate my Mom and Dad forever.

Looking at the book — a hardcover! –hiccuping down the sobs I had worked up to make my parents feel bad on the ride home, I felt like Sydney Grenstreet getting his hands on the Maltese Falcon: Possession of this thing justified any means to get it.

I can’t recall behaving this poorly at any other point in my childhood. I really wanted that book, I guess.

Okay, okay, let me assure you that Smith’s story of juvenile book lust and larceny is much more dignified and uplifting than mine. And to my chagrin, let me add: She does not cry once. But you might.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2011 1:50 pm

    And to your readers who acrtually go to the trouble of accessing this essay: DO NOT STOP THERE – find her award winning book, JUST KIDS about her youthful relationship with Robert Mapplethorp, and the soul and passion and chaos of the Greenwich Village art scene of the 1970s. It will suck you into that bygone era with the power of her language, her observations and her ability to synthesize the many converging elvents of that time.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 3, 2011 3:02 pm

      And her verbs. Great verbs.

  2. October 3, 2011 2:44 pm

    A blast from the past just hit me. I was 18 and working at the Minuteman Missle sites in Colorado. On my downtime I read as much as possible. I got a card for the Littleton Library and checked out books. When the job was over I went back to Minnesota with PEDAR VICTORIOUS by O.E. Rolvaag in my luggage, which belonged to the library, of course. I’m feeling really guilty now, Chauncey. I guess I’ll go on-line and see if that library is still around. If they are, I’ll send them an anonymous copy of the novel. Or maybe I’ll put your name on the letter of apology I’ll write. Hah!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 3, 2011 3:18 pm

      Duff, please use my name in vain all you wish. It will be a beginning on the lengthy list of amends I should probably make before I go to my heavenly reward. But I have a deep spot in my heart for book theft. A young mind in need of books — not just to read, but to possess for their talismanic power — is like a body in need of bread. I’ve never read Les Miserables, but tell me, isn’t it true the plot concerns a library overdue book enforcer named Javert who endlessly tracks a nice fellow named Valjean for stealing a copy of L’Autel du Corps, a novel much beloved by the French, from the public library?

  3. October 3, 2011 5:27 pm

    “Reading is the gateway to your dreams. Everything you do or dream of doing in life will come through reading.” — Michael John McCann

    Read with a child. Read even if you do not get paid. Read to a child even if it is free. Sit them on your knee. Let them know it is Ok to climb that tree. Soon they will see.

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