'His tutor, Mr Jorden, fellow of Pembroke, was not, it seems, a man of such abilities as we should conceive requisite for the instructor of Samuel Johnson, who gave me the following account of him. "He was a very worthy man, but a heavy man, and I did not profit much by his instructions. Indeed, I did not attend him much. The first day after I came to college, I waited on him, and then staid away four. On the sixth, Mr Jorden asked me why I had not attended? I answered, I had been sliding in Christ Church meadow: and this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my Tutor." BOSWELL. "That, Sir, was great fortitude of mind." JOHNSON. "No, Sir, stark insensibility."'
If ever (heaven forbid) I were to write a memoir of my prolonged adolescence, it would be titled Stark Insensibility. A recent flurry of activity on the excellent Commonplace Blog got me looking back with an appalled shudder to those years. Last Friday, Dave Myers owned up to The Books I've Stolen - which got his readers queuing up to confess to their own book thefts. My mind reeled back to student days, when I could scan my book collection and know that fully a third of it had been stolen - from bookshops, from libraries, I don't think from any individuals (which is something, I suppose).
What was I up to? I guess it was partly the zeitgeist. Those were strange unsettled times (the turn of the Seventies) and, in some of the circles I moved in, theft - at least from more or less faceless institutions - was no big deal. There were those around who concurred with Prudhon's maxim, Property Is Theft. I wasn't really one of them, but I was more than stupid enough - and amoral enough - to disregard property rights when it suited me. I didn't even get a thrill from the risks I was running - or only from the most audacious feat of swiping; mostly it was just something I (and many others) did. And there is, undeniably, something different about stealing books - which is why so many people who would never dream of stealing anything else will pinch books without too many qualms. It's the form of theft that seems to come closest to the popular euphemism - 'liberating' property.
But here I am again, looking back aghast, and asking why the heck I did what I did. And the best answer is still Johnson's: Stark Insensibility.