What Are the Most Stolen Books? Bookstore Lists Feature Works by Murakami, Bukowski, Burroughs, Vonnegut, Kerouac & Palahniuk


In 1971, Abbie Hoff­man pub­lished his coun­ter­cul­tur­al how-to/”hip Boy Scout hand­book,” Steal This Book. Since then, mil­lions of peo­ple have queued up to pay for it. Did they mis­read the very clear instruc­tion in the title? Or did most of Hoffman’s read­ers think of it as anoth­er Yip­pie hoax, not to be tak­en any more seri­ous­ly than Piga­sus, the 145-pound pig Hoff­man and his mer­ry band of pranksters nom­i­nat­ed for pres­i­dent in 1968? Seems to me Hoff­man was dead seri­ous about the pig, and about his call for shoplift­ing, or “inven­to­ry shrink.”

Nev­er­the­less, mil­lions of peo­ple have need­ed no unam­bigu­ous prod­ding from the Andy Kauf­man of polit­i­cal the­ater to steal mil­lions of oth­er books from shops world­wide, to the detri­ment of pub­lish­ers and book­sellers and the edi­fi­ca­tion of penu­ri­ous read­ers. The books most stolen from book­stores hap­pen to also be those that might best appeal to the kind of rad­i­cal anar­cho-hip­pies Hoff­man addressed, includ­ing Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and any­thing by Bukows­ki and Bur­roughs.

Also high on the list is Haru­ki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chron­i­cle, not a nov­el we nec­es­sar­i­ly asso­ciate with dump­ster-divers and box­car-hop­pers, but one of many Murakamis book thieves have tak­en to lift­ing nonethe­less. Kurt Von­negut ranks high­ly, includ­ing his very pop­u­lar Cat’s Cra­dle and Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons. Oth­er favorite authors include hyper-mas­cu­line seers of soci­etal deca­dence, Chuck Palah­niuk and Brett Eas­t­on Ellis.

How do we know this? One source is sim­ply an image, above, tweet­ed out by Vintage/Anchor Books—a pho­to of a “Most Stolen Books” shelf at an unnamed book­store. We might assume whichev­er store it is has all the evi­dence it needs from a con­sis­tent­ly shrink­ing inven­to­ry of these titles. And anoth­er major book­store con­firms much of the anony­mous shelf above.

Melis­sa MacAulay at The Edit­ing Com­pa­ny blog writes that dur­ing a part-time gig at Cana­di­an giant Indi­go books, Palahniuk’s Fight Club end­ed up behind the counter. Read­ers look­ing for a copy instead found “a small sign direct­ing you to ‘please ask for assis­tance.’” In addi­tion to Palah­niuk, Indigo’s big three most stolen authors are Muraka­mi, Kurt Von­negut, and Bukows­ki, who tops out as the “reign­ing king of ‘Shoplift Lit.’”

In yet anoth­er “Most Stolen” list, blog­ger Can­dice Huber—inspired by Markus Zusak’s 2013 nov­el The Book Thiefunder­took her own infor­mal research and came up with sim­i­lar results, with Bukows­ki and Bur­roughs in the top spot and Ker­ouac at num­ber two. “All of the books list­ed,” notes Kot­tke, “are by men and most by ‘man­ly’ men” (what­ev­er that means). See her list, with com­men­tary, below.

Any­thing by Charles Bukows­ki or William S. Bur­roughs. Book sell­ers tend to keep books by these authors behind the counter because they get swiped so often.

On the Road by Jack Ker­ouac. If you notice a theme here, Bukows­ki, Bur­roughs, and Ker­ouac books all share, shall I put it blunt­ly, con­tent of sex and drugs. It seems that those most like­ly to com­mit a reck­less act (steal­ing) are also inter­est­ed in read­ing about reck­less acts.

Graph­ic Nov­els. The major­i­ty of book thieves are young, white males, and this is what they read.

The Great Gats­by by F. Scott Fitzger­ald. Which was actu­al­ly one of the most com­mon­ly stolen books long before the movie came out.

Var­i­ous Selec­tions from Ernest Hem­ing­way, includ­ing A Move­able Feast and The Sun Also Ris­es.

Naked and Me Talk Pret­ty One Day by David Sedaris. David Sedaris? Real­ly?

The New York Tril­o­gy by Paul Auster. I wouldn’t have thought this was the stuff of the five-fin­ger dis­count.

Steal this Book did not crack the top sev­en, though it did receive hon­or­able men­tion, along with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jef­frey Eugenides’ The Vir­gin Sui­cides, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and “any­thing by Mar­tin Amis.” Hav­ing been a poor col­lege stu­dent myself once (not that I lift­ed my books!), and hav­ing taught many a cash-strapped under­grad, I’d assume a good num­ber of the miss­ing Fitzger­alds and Hem­ing­ways left book­stores in the hands of thieves bear­ing syl­labi.

A 2009 Guardian list gives us an entire­ly dif­fer­ent image of British book thieves with a pen­chant for box­er Lenny McLean’s mem­oirs, Yolan­da Celbridge’s “mod­ern S&M clas­sic” The Tam­ing of Tru­di, com­ic books Tintin and Aster­ix, Banksy’s cof­fee table book Wall and Piece, and Har­ry Pot­ter. Hoff­man comes in at num­ber six.

When it comes to books stolen from libraries, on the oth­er hand, Huber points out this dynam­ic: “library theft leans more toward the prac­ti­cal than the pop­u­lar, where­as book­store theft leans toward the pop­u­lar.” The top sev­en here include expen­sive art books, The Bible, The Guin­ness Book of World Records, textbooks/reference books/exam prep books, and, nat­u­ral­ly, books on uni­ver­si­ty read­ing lists. Also, Sports Illus­trat­ed Swim­suit Edi­tion and “oth­er racy books/magazines”—many stolen, per­haps, to avoid the embar­rass­ment of pry­ing librar­i­an eyes.

We do not assume that you, dear upstand­ing read­er, have ever stolen a book, or any­thing else. And yet, did you find any­thing on these lists sur­pris­ing? (I thought Hen­ry Miller might make the cut.…) What books would you expect to see stolen often that didn’t appear? What about a list of “most bor­rowed” (and maybe nev­er returned) books from friends/acquaintances/family/roommates? Let us know your thoughts below.

via Vintage/Anchor/Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 20 Most Influ­en­tial Aca­d­e­m­ic Books of All Time: No Spoil­ers

28 Impor­tant Philoso­phers List the Books That Influ­enced Them Most Dur­ing Their Col­lege Days

The 10 Great­est Books Ever, Accord­ing to 125 Top Authors (Down­load Them for Free)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • davenug says:

    And not “Steal This Book” by Abbie Hoff­man????

  • That pic­ture is almost cer­tain­ly from a for­mer Indi­go Books loca­tion on Rich­mond Street in Toron­to. I can tell from the angles by which it joins the two shelves adja­cent. I was a fre­quent PURCHASER of books at this store and walked by this shelf many times.

  • Marty says:

    not that sur­prised at the absence of Miller — he’s danc­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of dance to those oth­er beats. The name-recog­ni­tion as a twist­ed cat would prob­a­bly account for most of these, i bet a lot of them don’t get read, just sold at the 2nd hand book store down the street, these are just the best val­ue theft to fence to eat for a day ratio…

  • Dam Rass says:

    Wake Up.
    A. Hoff­man was so NOT a mer­ry prankster.
    Anoth­er rea­son this site’s turned to trea­son, screw­ing up the recipe for the sake of blog fan­ta­sy van­i­ty.
    Maybe time to close it down.

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