Those who love books, steal them (and do other things as well)

Books, Reading

Kurt Tucholsky seems to be quite a favorite of librarians. His statement from 1931 on not to write in library books became a rather famous quote in our circles. (Though, it isn’t so much a quote by Tucholsky rather than by Peter Panter – but authorship and pseudonymity shall not be an issue right now. )

“A modest request to library borrowers. Let other people write the margin notes: don’t do it yourself! Don’t draw all over the books, it is not nice.”

A much less famous contemporary of ours confessed in a Guardian post that he writes in library books – and with good reasons, since:

“Books are meant to be written on.”

Browsing library shelves and scanning through the books, I’m pretty sure librarians everywhere can find ample evidence of this practice in their own collections (hence the Tucholsky love of our discipline, I suppose).

While reading Tucholsky/Panter, I recollected another bibliophile German from the early 20th century. Walter Benjamin, one of the outstanding book collectors, will surely not be considered a librarian’s favorite. After all, he confessed (in the same year as Panter did) that every true collector of books is – almost necessarily – also a book thief:

“Of the customary modes of acquisition, the one most appropriate to a collector would be the borrowing of a book with its attendant non-returning. The book borrower of real stature whom we envisage here proves himself to be an inveterate collector of books not so much by the fervor with which he guards his borrowed treasures and by the deaf ear which he turns to all reminders from the everyday world of legality as by his failure to read these books. If my experience may serve as evidence, a man is more likely to return a borrowed book upon occasion than to read it.” (Illuminations, 62)

Later in his essay, he even claims that only in private collections – not public ones (i.e. libraries) – books fulfill their true purpose:

“Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter.” (ibid., 67)

Turns out, libraries in their quest for supporters shouldn’t focus on the bibliophile rather than turn to those indifferent to books. There is little danger that they will “forget” to return their books – or write in the margins.


Georg Ruppelt, ‘Kurt Tucholsky und die Bibliothek’, B.I.T. online 2010 (13.4):

Peter Panter (Kurt Tucholsky), A Modest Request (1931):

Joe Moran, ‘Why I write in the margin’, The Guardian, 03/22/2011:

Walter Benjamin, ‘Unpacking My Library. A Talk about Book Collecting,’ Illuminations. Essays and Reflections (translated by Harry Zohn), Schocken: New York 1969:



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