Friday, January 05, 2007

Book Revew: "The Book Thief"

The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman (Praeger, 2006) is an account of the theft of numerous rare books and manuscrips from the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscripts Library in the early 1990s, as well as the multi-year quest to bring the culprit to justice. Travis McDade, currently the Assistant Professor of Library Administration at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's College of Law, has written what must be considered the definitive monograph on this case, barring any further developments (much of Spiegelman's haul has still not been recovered, and since the man is now out of jail again, more shoes could yet drop).

What is remarkable about the Spiegelman case, McDade argues, is that the crime was taken very seriously by federal judge Lewis Kaplan, who went out of his way to depart from federal sentencing guidelines and add to Spiegelman's jail term. This was based largely on the efforts of Columbia librarians and other scholars, who through written and oral testimony made clear that Spiegelman's crimes should not be examined simply in light of any monetary value the stolen objects had, but also in terms of the cultural and scholarly implications.

McDade notes that this book began as a research paper, and it still retains that sort of feel. He does not have the talent of Nicholas Basbanes or Miles Harvey for telling a good story; thankfully the Spiegelman drama holds enough water on its own to make this book interesting even through a writing style which is somewhat clunky. Additionally, another round of copy-editing might have improved the book, which contains multiple typographical and grammatical errors. Nonetheless, for those concerned with the protection of our cultural heritage from people like Spiegelman, McDade has written a book well worth reading.