Monday, March 21, 2016

Disappearing Ink by Travis McDade

"He was quite possibly the least sneaky book thief in the history of the crime, and yet he kept getting away with it." If a fiction writer wrote about David Breithaupt's ten years of theft from Kenyon College's Olive and Chalmers Library, everyone would say a bumbling thief would never get away with it. Travis McDade relates the true story of the horrendous thefts in Disappearing Ink.

Breithaupt was originally from Ohio, and after almost ten years spent working in bookstores in New York City, he returned home. He had trouble finding work there in 1990. "Lack of discernible skills, requisite degrees, or basic qualifications may have all played a role in his frustrations, but so, too, did his personality." Fortunately for him, and, unfortunately for Kenyon College, he was hired for the part-time job of evening supervisor at Kenyon College's Olive and Chalmers Library in Gambier, Ohio. There he had easy access to the Special Collections, and was able to take books as well as complete files of correspondence and manuscripts from authors such as W.H. Auden, Norman Mailer, and Dylan Thomas. Kenyon College's exquisite collections were steadily raped time and time again, until in 2000, a librarian in Georgia reported that someone had tried to sell a letter from Flannery O'Connor. That letter would lead to college, local and federal investigations, and Breithaupt's downfall.

McDade tells the story of Breithaupt's thefts, his flimsy stories, and his sales of books. He and his partner, Christa Hupp, made a business of selling the stolen materials, partially because their sales coincided with the rise of the Internet and online businesses devoted to private sales. The first half of the book is devoted to Breithaupt's thefts and deceptions. The second half deals with the discoveries, investigations, and court trials.

Disappearing Ink is a fascinating and infuriating account. There are a number of people who are culpable in Breithaupt's continuing ability to walk away with valuable books and manuscripts.  Kenyon College acknowledged their mistakes, and took the case to the law and court, which drew further attention to their errors in judgement and behavior. But, the behavior of a man who professed to love books is unbelievable. And, it's astonishing to see that he continued to receive support from authors who didn't seem to think he had done anything wrong in stealing from a library.

Looking for nonfiction that truly reads as if it's an unbelievable fiction story? Try Travis McDade's Disappearing Ink.

Disappearing Ink by Travis McDade. Diversion Books. 2015. ISBN 9781682301487 (paperback), 174p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Author Bill Fitzhugh gave me the copy of the book. (I think he knew I'd be outraged.)


Jeffrey Meyerson said...

That sounds really good, though my library doesn't have it (as yet?). They do have McDade's 2013 book, Thieves of Book Row : New York's most notorious rare book ring and the man who stopped it, about a Depression-era ring of thieves.

Lesa said...

Jeff, I'm willing to pass on my copy if you'd like it. If you do, email me at & I'll send it to you. If not, that's OK.

TFJ said...

Scary stuff, Lesa. I worked at Stanford Libraries' Preservation Dept. and just couldn't believe the treasures in all its collections. I was happy to abide by the policies and procedures to ensure these collections were available for another few centuries.

Hard to believe that this isn't fiction and so sad that it happened.


TFJ said...

This reminds me of Miles Harvey's Island of Lost Maps, similar situation with a man cutting out maps from libraries up and down the east coast and selling them.

~Tricia (again!)

Lesa said...

It's all just scary and sad, Tricia.

Anonymous said...

"He continued to receive support from authors who didn't seem to think he had done anything wrong in stealing from a library."

Seriously? Which authors? And would they mind if I stopped by their homes and helped myself to their book collections?


Lesa said...

Seriously, Anna. A few literary authors. I know. It's disturbing, isn't it? And, one is a very recognizable name. I'm haven't read his books, but I'm afraid I won't ever even see his name now without thinking of this.