Crime of culture: American Animals and the history of rare book heists



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STX Entertainment

Leah Henrickson, Loughborough University

American Animals, a film recounting the true story of a 2004 rare book theft, was recently released in cinemas across the UK. The film is a dramatic retelling of events based on director Bart Layton’s interviews and written correspondence with the convicted book thieves – interactions which began while the thieves were serving seven-year prison sentences following their guilty pleas.

In 2004, four friends in their early 20s – Charles Allen, Eric Borsuk, Warren Lipka, and Spencer Reinhard – attempted to execute an elaborate plan to steal more than US$12m worth of textual treasures from Lexington, Kentucky’s Transylvania University (Transy) Special Collections.

After a year in the planning, the heist involved the men disguising themselves as elderly, shooting librarian Betty Jean Gooch with a stun gun and simply shoving valuables into backpacks. When the day came, the men managed to escape with approximately US$750,000 worth of books in their backpacks, including a first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, an illuminated medieval manuscript, and a copy of John James Audubon’s A Synopsis of Birds of North America.

Rushing from Lexington to New York, the men attempted to appraise their loot at Christie’s, but never managed to sell their ill-gotten gains. They returned home with the books and were tracked down by the FBI within a matter of months. The entire ordeal was so poorly organised that Vanity Fair deemed it “one part Oceans 11, one part Harold & Kumar”.

Light fingers

But this was by no means the only notable rare book heist in living memory. Earlier in 2018, an audit of the special collections of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh uncovered a series of thefts of rare books and book pages with a total value of around US$8m over a period of more than 20 years. It turned out that the former manager of the Carnegie Library’s rare book room, Gregory Priore, and bookseller John Schulman had been working together to sell the stolen goods through the rare book trade and auction houses.

The books stolen from Carnegie included Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, a first edition of The Journal of Major George Washington, and a first edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Unaware of where these books came from, booksellers from across the globe bought and sold them on to their own private and institutional customers.

Sir Isaac Newton’s own first edition copy of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica with his handwritten corrections for the 20th edition.
Andrew Dunn via Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, CC BY-SA

These sales can be difficult to track on such a large scale and, while some works have been recovered (often at the booksellers’ own expense), hundreds of the stolen items remain missing. An up-to-date list of those items believed to have been stolen is provided by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America.

Library thefts are nothing new. Throughout the 1840s, Italian count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja stole approximately 30,000 items in his job as chief inspector of French Libraries (he later made a comfortable living selling this loot in England).

More recently, in 1990, American bibiomaniac Stephen Blumberg was arrested for stealing more than 20,000 books valued at more than US$5m from more than 200 universities and museums across North America.

The Great Library of Alexandria, O. Von Corven, 19th century.
Wikimedia commons, CC BY-NC

He served four years in prison and became known as the “Book Bandit”.

But on a more systemic and institutional level one could go as far back as the ancient Library of Alexandria, which supposedly seized any books found on ships arriving at the port. These books were copied by professional scribes who then deposited the original works into the library and gave the copies to the books’ owners.

Book ‘em

While library thefts are commonplace, the release of American Animals and the news of the recent Carnegie Library thefts have made this crime front page news. After all, the sheer value of some of these books makes them a very attractive proposition for thieves. But it’s not always just about money – the young men in American Animals fantasise about getting their hands on culturally revered items, while Guglielmo Libri and Blumberg were bibliomaniacs with a recognised condition. And the Library of Alexandria had a larcenous ambition to become a “universal library”, gathering all of the known world’s knowledge under a single roof.

The rare book trade is lucrative, certainly. Individuals and institutions are willing to spend healthy amounts to enhance their collections. But books represent more than just profit. They are cultural artefacts that span space and time to carry the voices of those who have meaningfully contributed to the world’s knowledge. As the primary means of communication for thousands of years, books reflect and perpetuate cultural heritage and – ultimately – help us understand what it means to be human.

Whether someone is stealing books for financial gain, the thrill of the game, or the overwhelming love of these objects, library theft is always underpinned by an understanding of books as valuable cultural artefacts. The young men in the American Animals heists are animals because they tried to plunder these relics of human development.The Conversation

Leah Henrickson, PhD Candidate, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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2018 USA Book/Ebook Sales


The link below is to an article that looks at the various figures for book/ebook/audiobook sales in the USA (I think it is).

For more visit:
https://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/ebook-sales-decline-3-in-first-four-months-of-2018

Audiobook Prices Compared to Books and Ebooks


The link below is to an article that takes a look at audiobook prices compared to book and ebook prices.

For more visit:
https://ebookfriendly.com/audiobooks-price-comparison-ebooks-print-books/

How we discovered three poisonous books in our university library



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Raman Saurei/Shutterstock.com

Jakob Povl Holck, University of Southern Denmark and Kaare Lund Rasmussen, University of Southern Denmark

Some may remember the deadly book of Aristotle that plays a vital part in the plot of Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel The Name of the Rose. Poisoned by a mad Benedictine monk, the book wreaks havoc in a 14th-century Italian monastery, killing all readers who happen to lick their fingers when turning the toxic pages. Could something like this happen in reality? Poisoning by books?

Our recent research indicates so. We found that three rare books on various historical topics in the University of Southern Denmark’s library collection contain large concentrations of arsenic on their covers. The books come from the 16th and 17th centuries.

The poisonous qualities of these books were detected by conducting a series of X-ray fluorescence analyses (micro-XRF). This technology displays the chemical spectrum of a material by analysing the characteristic “secondary” radiation that is emitted from the material during a high-energy X-ray bombardment. Micro-XRF technology is widely used within the fields of archaeology and art, when investigating the chemical elements of pottery and paintings, for example.

One of the poisonous books.
SDU, Author provided

Glaring green

The reason why we took these three rare books to the X-ray lab was because the library had previously discovered that medieval manuscript fragments, such as copies of Roman law and canonical law, were used to make their covers. It is well documented that European bookbinders in the 16th and 17th centuries used to recycle older parchments.

We tried to identify the Latin texts used, or at least read some of their content. But then we found that the Latin texts in the covers of the three volumes were hard to read because of an extensive layer of green paint which obscures the old handwritten letters. So we took them to the lab. The idea was to filter through the layer of paint using micro-XRF and focus on the chemical elements of the ink below, for example on iron and calcium, in the hope of making the letters more readable for the university’s researchers.

But XRF-analysis revealed that the green pigment layer was arsenic. This chemical element is among the most toxic substances in the world and exposure may lead to various symptoms of poisoning, the development of cancer and even death.

Accidents caused by the use of green arsenic, 1859.
© Wellcome Collection, CC BY-SA

Arsenic (As) is a ubiquitous naturally occurring metalloid. In nature, arsenic is typically combined with other elements such as carbon and hydrogen. This is known as organic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic, which may occur in a pure metallic form as well as in compounds, is the more harmful variant. The toxicity of arsenic does not diminish with time.

Depending on the type and duration of exposure, various symptoms of arsenic poisoning include an irritated stomach, irritated intestines, nausea, diarrhoea, skin changes and irritation of the lungs.

Paris Green.
Chris Goulet/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The green arsenic-containing pigment found on the book covers is thought to be Paris green, copper(II) acetate triarsenite or copper(II) acetoarsenite Cu(C₂H₃O₂)₂·3Cu(AsO₂)₂. This is also known as “emerald green”, because of its eye-catching green shades, similar to those of the popular gemstone.

The arsenic pigment – a crystalline powder – is easy to manufacture and has been commonly used for multiple purposes, especially in the 19th century. The size of the powder grains influence on the colour toning, as seen in oil paints and lacquers. Larger grains produce a distinct darker green – smaller grains a lighter green. The pigment is especially known for its colour intensity and resistance to fading.

Pigment of the past

Industrial production of Paris green was initiated in Europe in the early 19th century. Impressionist and post-impressionist painters used different versions of the pigment to create their vivid masterpieces. This means that many museum pieces today contain the poison. In its heyday, all types of materials, even book covers and clothes, could be coated in Paris green for aesthetic reasons. Of course, continuous skin contact with the substance would lead to symptoms of exposure.

But by the second half of the 19th century, the toxic effects of the substance were more commonly known, and the arsenic variant stopped being used as a pigment and was more frequently used as a pesticide on farmlands. Other pigments were found to replace Paris green in paintings and the textile industry etc. In the mid 20th century, the use on farmlands was phased out as well.

‘The Arsenic Waltz’.
© Wellcome Collection, CC BY-SA

In the case of our books, the pigment wasn’t used for aesthetic purposes, making up a lower level of the cover. A plausible explanation for the application – possibly in the 19th century – of Paris green on old books could be to protect them against insects and vermin.

Under certain circumstances, arsenic compounds, such as arsenates and arsenites, may be transformed by microorganisms into arsine (AsH₃) – a highly poisonous gas with a distinct smell of garlic. Grim stories of green Victorian wallpapers taking the lives of children in their bedrooms are known to be factual.

The ConversationNow, the library stores our three poisonous volumes in separate cardboard boxes with safety labels in a ventilated cabinet. We also plan on digitising them to minimise physical handling. One wouldn’t expect a book to contain a poisonous substance. But it might.

Jakob Povl Holck, Research Librarian, University of Southern Denmark and Kaare Lund Rasmussen, Associate Professor in Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy, University of Southern Denmark

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ebook Ownership


The link below is to an article that takes a look at ebook ownership and the differences between books and ebooks.

For more visit:
https://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/there-is-a-psychological-divide-over-ebook-ownership

More on Hardbacks/Hardcovers


The link below is another article on hardbacks/hardcovers that is, in fact, a response to the previous article posted.

For more visit:
https://the-digital-reader.com/2018/02/26/publishers-still-issue-hardbacks-given-theyre-not-popular-anymore/