Den Links Literature Reviews Bookstore Friends Humor Claire's Essays Claire's Books Wolfe's Lodge

Previous Next

Wolf Tracks

An Anarchist Period Piece

A review of Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman
Reviewed by Eric Oppen

We seem to be specializing in reviews of vintage books this month. This one goes waaaaay back -- to the rowdy 60s. But I agree with Eric. Abbie Hoffman's work is worth another look.

I first ran across this book at the house of a family friend; she and my mother were talking, and I, being of junior-high age and male, was excluded from the conversation. Being a lifelong compulsive reader, I was snooping through the lady's shelves, and came across a book with an intriguing title. What, I wondered, was Steal This Book? When I opened it, I was shocked and delighted. Shocked that a dignified English war-bride like our lovely hostess would have such a thing at all, much less out on her shelves, and delighted at the sheer audacity of Hoffman and his editors in allowing such a thing to be published, particularly with that title.

I read it eagerly, and when I asked to borrow it, the owner generously gave it to me. Thus, due to the kindness of a longtime friend, I came into possession of one of the few genuine rarities in my book collection. Many years later, I ran across another copy of the same vintage, at a Half-Price Books where they didn't know what they had, and was able to snap it up for half the cover price. Thus begins and ends my career as a rare-edition collector; if I can't read it, I generally don't want it. Although the book has been reprinted since then, in facsimile form, I'm quite sure that it hasn't been reviewed in years. Hence, this little piece.

Steal This Book is a true period piece; the illustrations reek of the time when it was published --.both in photographs and black-and-white drawings. Just to open it will bring back memories for anybody old enough to have been actively involved in the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even when I first got hold of it, in the middle 1970s, most of the addresses for groups given were years out of date. One could question Hoffman's wisdom in including such addresses, since he would have had to have known that the authorities would be examining the book very closely indeed. Much of the practical advice is also long since useless, ranging from how to make free phone calls to how to get a legal abortion, prior to Roe vs. Wade. You may ask, legitimately, why I am wasting my time writing this review.

Well, Steal This Book was, in a lot of ways, the ancestor and precursor of a lot of books on the market today. Many of the books in the Paladin catalog, the Loompanics catalog, or the like might not have been published had Steal This Booknot broken the ice, as it were. It came out at just about the same time (same copyright year, at least) as William Powell's overrated Anarchist Cookbook, and if Hoffman had gotten wind of the Cookbook's coming out, he might have been trying to really do what Powell only said he would do: put information about how to bring the system down into the hands of people who really needed it. Unlike Powell, Hoffman was the real thing; a genuine anarcho-nihilist-whatchamacallit, who managed to combine what seems to be an honest devotion to freedom with slavish admiration of the regimes in North Vietnam, Russia and China in his time.

Also unlike Powell, Hoffman did not put a bunch of false information into his offering. The Anarchist Cookbook has many dangerous errors in it, particularly in the parts about weapons, explosives, and drugs. I cannot emphasize clearly enough that the Cookbook is, in my opinion, a clever booby-trap intended to make the more violence-minded radicals of the time more likely to take themselves out of the gene pool -- a sort of Darwin Award waiting to happen, in softcover.

The actual advice in Steal This Book is clearly written, generally quite well-illustrated -- and it worked. Like a lot of "hippie manuals" to various things, such as Carl Franz' excellent People's Guide to Mexico Hoffman doesn't talk down to his audience, although he does assume that you share his views on the issues of the day. Basically, he addresses his book to those who want to live free. Free of the shackles of society, free of all non-voluntarily-assumed obligations, and free from the intrusions of the government. Sounds all right to me, so far!

The book is divided into three big sections:

Survive! Covers all aspects of how to live poor-but-happy, hippie-style, with a lot of interesting information on how to get free or extremely inexpensive food, furniture, clothing, and all the other necessities of life. Some of the methods covered are, to put it bluntly, criminal, ranging from shoplifting to credit-card fraud to very early telephone phreaking, but a great deal of it could be used perfectly well today. The recipes for things like "Weatherbeans" still work just fine; food doesn't change, after all.

Fight!; the second section, goes into political activism ranging from starting up an underground newspaper on up to violence in the streets and going underground. Although I doubt that many people now are where Hoffman was on the political scale, a lot of his advice here is still quite, quite valid: "Random violence produces random political results. Why waste even a rock?" is a gem of wisdom that everybody from Timothy McVeigh to our Commander in Heat could stand to ponder for some time. The advice about how to prepare for a demonstration that might turn violent (whether the violence comes from enraged counter-demonstrators or the police is immaterial) is clear, well-thought-out and useful. To be sure, the section on guns is brief and incomplete, but Hoffman was a Northeastern urban type who wasn't too familiar with them himself, and he was smart enough to know it. He recommends "reading some right-wing gun literature" to find more facts; if he had known how bitterly gun people debate almost anything, and how inconclusive the debates tend to be, he would have tracked down one of his friends who did know about guns, and sat on him till he got the information he needed. Since Abbie Hoffman spent a long, long time living underground some time after this book came out, and only "surfaced" when he wanted to, I have to believe that he knew what he was talking about on going underground.

Liberate!; the last section, is by far the most dated. It is mostly a list of contacts in various cities, places like crash pads, militant groups, and the like. Unsurprisingly, almost all of these groups are long since gone, and the addresses would be completely useless. Still, it can be interesting reading about all the people back then that really thought that a revolution was just around the corner and were looking forward to it eagerly, forgetting what happens, all too often, to the Old Revolutionaries once the Revolutionary Government starts showing its true colors and remembers that these guys are the very ones who have the skills to bring it down.

All in all, to me,

Steal This Book is an interesting period piece with a lot of surprising applicability to today; not unlike the satires of Petroleum V. Nasby. The book is an enjoyable read, even if you aren't planning to start a commune or get a demonstration going. It was only in print originally for a short while, mostly due to Hoffman's insane insistence on a title that could be taken as an incitement to steal the book; he forgot that to get his message to the masses, he had to get the book out, and alienating bookstore owners was the wrong way to do that. Keeping Hoffman's irreverence, street smarts and practical tips, while leaving his sillier ideas in the delousing sheds of history, strikes me as a good idea.

© 1999 Eric Oppen

Previous Top Next

Wolf Tracks

| The Lodge | Claire's Books | CW Essays | CW Sillies | Patricia Neill | Friends
| Bookstore | Reviews | Literature | Sound-Off Archive | Den | Links |

If you find anything awry at this site,
please contact the Web Tender.

July 30, 1999, 1999 < /HTML>