Five-minute memoir: Andy Martin recalls how a stolen book changed his life


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The Independent Culture

It was a small family bookshop, on a peaceful back street in a small town on the fringes of London. I treated it as my own personal library, and I would sit there for hours on end, often on the floor, usually not buying anything. I loved that bookshop, so naturally I had to go and betray it.

I had a particular soft spot for the foreign-languages section down in the basement. It was like going somewhere far far away, but without the trouble and expense of hopping on a boat or a plane. On this particular day – I was aged 15 and a half – there was no one else in 'FOREIGN'; I had the place all to myself. For some reason I pulled the fattest book I could find off the shelf.

I couldn't understand too much of it, and not just because it was in French, but I felt as if it could understand me. Jean-Paul Sartre's L'être et le néant (Being and Nothingness) had a special kind of music to it, like a remix of "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus", that instantly jazzed up my brain cells. Up until that point I had been a generally law-abiding citizen. Now, suddenly, I could feel a strange metamorphosis creeping over me.

Not long before, I had been stood up – waited for a girl to turn up at a local coffee shop, only she didn't. Her name was Sylvie. Then, riffling through the pages of Being and Nothingness, I read this, with an electrifying feeling of identification. "I have a rendezvous with Sylvie at 4 o'clock." Re-reading it now (page 43) I see that the author wrote "Pierre", but I am sure that I read "Sylvie". And, look, this was surely my café too, "replete with customers, tables, booths, mirrors, light, smoky atmosphere, the sound of voices, the clinking of saucers, footsteps". All in all, yes, "a plenitude of being". And yet, when he looks for the face of Sylvie and doesn't find it, "absence haunts the café".

All this sound, the people, the food, the coffee: it was all subtly permeated, perfumed, with the vacancy, the lack, that was Sylvie. It was obvious that the relationship with Sylvie was not going to work out too well, but if I didn't have Sylvie at least I had Sartre. Maybe he was more my type anyway. He took my existence – broadly stupid, meaningless and futile – and made it existential.

The book had found its ideal reader: I had found my book. And if I had had any sense or regard for morality, I would have duly saved up and bought it. But I could feel this big book in my hand urging me on to do something reckless and illicit. The book made me do it.

When I went up the stairs and crept past the bookseller and the till, where I did not stop to pay, I was sure that it was making an enormous guilty hump in my coat.

But I kept on going regardless, out the door, down the street, expecting alarm bells at any moment, the scream of sirens, pursuit by high-speed police cars. I was ready to face the consequences, whatever they may be. I would assume responsibility.

I didn't think my parents or teachers or twin brother would understand, but the book would. The author would. I was at large in the world, on the run, a fugitive from justice, on my own – except for the book.

So this was what it felt like to be alive. I existed – for the first time. The book-thief was escaping on a bus and he was reading Being and Nothingness. I see now, of course, that he (my younger, more felonious self) was not escaping at all: he was hooked, on a bus driving him deeper and deeper into a terrible addiction to French philosophers. I carried the book around with me in the way an apprentice gangster stuffs a gun into his belt.

Many months later, driven by remorse and the 103 bus, I went back to that undeservingly ripped-off bookshop, book in hand, with some vague notion of confessing or paying up or doing penance. And, at some level, I really wanted to ditch the Sartre once and for all and recover my innocence.

The bookshop had of course ceased to exist. It had morphed from being into nothingness (a pile of rubble that would later become an estate agent).

This time I really did feel responsible, as if I had personally caused the downfall of a once-mighty edifice by running off with the one book that served as its foundation. I had single-handedly deconstructed an entire shopful of books.

There was no confession. No one could absolve me of anything. But perhaps – I still feel – it is not too late to atone for that original sin and give back the book I stole.

'The boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre versus Camus' by Andy Martin has just been published by Simon & Schuster in hardback