Radical book adventures in NYC
April 19, 2012
I attended the New York Antiquarian Book Fair last week and fell in love with a signed paperback, first edition, of Steal This Book, Abbie Hoffman’s anti-establishment survival guide self-published in 1971. Nostalgia gripped me — to own the book would be to own a tangible reminder of the years I was growing up when Hoffman appeared on the evening news protesting the Vietnam war or the capitalist pigs he despised, or causing trouble at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention with the Chicago Seven. Those were the years when music, politics, war, feminism, psychedelic drugs, Ed Sullivan, the moon landing, mini skirts and tie-dyed shirts and civil rights marches filled the nation’s psyche. I can see as clearly as I see this computer screen my sister one hot August night in 1968 imitating President Lyndon B. Johnson and putting me in hysterical laughter while the Democratic Convention broadcast on our television. More than a paperback, a signed edition of Steal This Book sitting on my bookshelf at home would provide a sensory journey into that decade of social change, the opportunity to glance at its spine and experience that flick of an emotional go-back in memory.
Abbie Hoffman wrote the introduction to his book from Chicago’s Cook County Jail. He was charged with conspiracy to disrupt the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and intent to incite riot. He was acquitted of the conspiracy charge but sentenced to five years for the other charge, which eventually was overturned (1972). He self-published Steal This Book because the content made publishers and booksellers nervous. It instructs readers how to live a life of protest without depending on the social order. In other words, how to steal and make bombs. The chapter titled “Free Food” in the “Survive!” section begins:
“In a country such as Amerika, there is bound to be a hell-of-a-lot of food lying around just waiting to be ripped off. If you want to live high off the hog without having to do the dishes, restaurants are easy pickings. In general, many of these targets are easier marks if you are wearing the correct uniform. You should always have one suit or fashionable dress outfit hanging in the closet for the proper heists.”
The book sold well. According to a 1990 New York Times article about books stolen from libraries, “Is There a Klepto in the Stacks?”, Steal This Book came out in April 1971 and by July sales reached 100,000 copies. The article listed Hoffman’s counter-culture classic as number 5 on its most-stolen list. Alas, the rare, signed copy of Steal This Book was beyond my budget at the Antiquarian Book Fair, and I walked away from it. Considering its title and interior messaging, I should mention the desired book was behind a locked, glass cabinet door.
Two days later I found myself in Bluestockings, a self-described radical bookstore in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a far cry both in location and subject matter from the bookstores I visited in the Upper East Side. Shelving categories included, to name a few, Activist Strategies, Civil Liberties and the State, Class and Labor, Global Justice and Anarchism. I didn’t linger very long, as I did in the Upper East Side stores, Kitchen Arts & Letters, Crawford Doyle Booksellers and The Corner Bookstore. As I left, I noticed Terry Bisson’s new novel Any Day Now on the display table. I had finished it a few days before I left for NYC, so understood its presence in Bluestockings.
Any Day Now follows the young Clayton Bewley Bauer from Owensboro, Kentucky, through his coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, from dating a car-hop and reading Howl and On the Road with a beatnik neighbor to dropping out of college and hitch-hiking to New York City, where he hangs with radicals involved with the Black Panthers and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He leaves NYC on the run from the FBI and lives in a commune in Colorado. There’s no mention that I recall of Abbie Hoffman but certainly of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention where Bisson provides an alternate history — Senator Robert F. Kennedy appears at the convention with a bandage around his head and becomes the democratic presidential nominee. Martin Luther King also survives his assassination and is RFK’s vice presidential pick.
The story is rich with atmosphere of the radical times, and anyone who lived them will get lost in the period details mentioned throughout. It’s like flipping through an absorbing Life magazine photo essay of the era. Readers born after 1970 may find the story dry. It lacks an emotional draw that makes us care about the characters and is written in short paragraphs with a staccato narrative voice. When it comes to the 1960s, however, if you lived it, you don’t need someone to create a seductive narrative draw. It’s already built into your own emotional core. You’ll hear the music, feel the revolution and know just how Clay feels when he says, “If I had twenty bucks, I would hit the road, stick out my thumb, go where the wind takes me.”