Yes, we take books and don’t always return them, but sometimes we’re told to

I would never take a coconut that had fallen from our neighbour’s tree into our yard. So why do I covet books that have been left behind in homestays and pensions? Maybe because I rank them as abandoned puppies. When I travel light, I pack books that I can leave behind if needed. There are so many books I read only once. They may be fifty-rupee volumes I picked up at a used-books sale. Or scruffy paperbacks passed on to me by a friend, with the firm injunction, “Don’t give these back to me.”

So I immediately deduced the provenance of the paperbacks on a forlorn shelf in the hallway of the Hotel Mimosa in Rome. There I found “The Trial” by Franz Kafka, the Holocaust novel “Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana de Rosnay, and other titles in Italian, English, Russian and German.

Who owns those books, anyway? The person who runs the pension? He won’t care, and surely he can’t read all those languages. And why does he leave them out of sight of the reception desk if he didn’t mean for us to help ourselves? And if he wants them, why not put up a sign saying “Please put back the books”?

In short, I was determined to steal. I developed my own code of honour for future fits of covetousness. I will take it only if I haven’t finished reading it during my stay, or only if I can’t live without knowing how it ends, or only if it’s a title I know I won’t find elsewhere. I will also try to leave behind a book in exchange. I took “Sarah’s Key” from that bookshelf in Rome. It was poorly written but impossible to leave half-read. I finished it on the train to Chiusi and left it on the seat for the next reader.

This was the first time I “borrowed without permission.” Usually, I take books only when I’m told to. A couple of years ago, at a suburban bus stand in the U.S., I found a shelf with books, from which riders were encouraged to take one. On each ride I took one. And now I read that a national book swap was recently launched in the U.K. Throughout this autumn, readers can pick up books that have been left out in public places and leave them for others afterwards, and then tweet about where they left the books.

As with chocolate left out for guests, one should strictly take just one. I violated that rule when I left the Hotel Mimosa. I had so few pages left in “Sarah’s Key” that halfway through my coming train ride I would be left bookless. Unthinkable.

So I took the Kafka as well. It was a tea-stained, dog-eared Penguin paperback with copious scribbles in it. And who reads Kafka any more? And just look at the tiny black and white author picture on the back of the Penguin edition. He looks exactly like an abandoned puppy.