From the typographical clamor raised in the New York Daily News, you'd have thought New York Press columnist George Szamuely had been caught committing satanic abuse in a day-care center. But it tured out that Szamuely's great crime was to have taken too many books -- 580 is a number that shows up in the press reports -- out of the New York University library, and been remiss in giving them back. The News and other newspapers have exultantly noted that Szamuely faces an overdue fine of $31,000, plus charges of grand larceny and possible jail time. John Beckman, described as a university spokesman, strutted through the news stories like some frontier sheriff twirling his six-gun: "Don't mess with NYU librarians."

A little realism, please, starting with the nonsense about a $31,00 fine. This vast sum is merely what the library reckons to be the cost of replacement of all the books, irrelevant to this case, since all the books are present and accounted for.

If every member of tenured faculty in universities across the country were arrested for holding upwards of 400 library books for periods in excess of three years, they'd have to double the rate of prison construction, or hold the profs on barges offshore. But of course, these profs aren't liable to arrest, because it's usually OK for tenured faculty to hold all these books for years on end.

My friend and neighbor Joe Paff tells me that when he was studying political science at Berkeley in the late 1960s, all the major 16th- and 17th-century texts were inaccessible, unless he went directly to the professor who had removed them from the library and lodged them permanently -- thousands of them -- in his own home.

It's perfectly obvious that no one else aside from Szamuely would ever read 99 percent of the books, of which he evidently took excellent care, unlike libraries, which often sell off all the interesting rarities on the grounds that there's been no demand for them and the shelf space would be better taken up with expensive computer equipment.

Some of the news stories noted that among the books held by Szamuely was Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. It's well-known that only Hungarians have the fortitude to grapple with this exhausting work. The last person I know to have read it thoroughly was my dear friend Nicholas Krasso, a student of Lukacs who fled Budapest for England in 1956. We spent a lot of time together in the mid-1960s, and Nicholas was forever quoting from the Phenomenology, which he said was best studied under the influence of LSD. Poor Nicholas fell asleep reading one night, and died in the smoke caused by the cigarette that fell from his dropping hand. Hegel was probably on the bed somewhere, probably the London Library's copy. What a fitting way for a copy of the Phenomenology to go!

Another of the books cited by the news stories -- this particular one was on the AP wire -- was Thoughts on Macchiavelli. So, how many other NYU students have any interest in Leo Strauss? A simple test. If Szamuely pleads innocent and opts for a jury trial, as I very much hope he will, let his attorney make a pile of the books in the courtroom, and then, let the jurors note how many times these books had been checked out before the erudite Szamuely got his hands on them. Probably most of them sat ignored, awaiting the moment NYU decided to sell them off to a book broker.

NYU should be glad and thank Szamuely for freeing up its shelf space. According to Albert Neal, head of "access services" at NYU's Bobst Library and quoted in the Daily News, the 500-plus books borrowed by Szamuely "had made up a major portion of the library's political science collection." Pretty skimpy library. The library was probably phasing out its printed books in favor of electronic storage, and just wanted to square accounts with Hegel, Leo Strauss and other fugitives under Szamuely's protection. Szamuely may be charged with grand larceny. Two or three centuries ago, the standard was simple: Stealing books is not a crime unless the books are sold. There's no evidence Szamuely was popping along to the Strand to flog off editions of Hobbes. He held those books for admirable reasons, such that a jury would understand. He needed them for the same reasons my shelves groan with volumes (Hegel's "Phenomenology" included) I may never get to, may never re-read. To surrender them is to confess that, yes, I may die before I get around to reading Hegel properly, or all the dialogues of Plato, or all Balzac's novels, or all the volumes of Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic; I may die before I write the column or the essay or the book that requires absolutely that these books be instantly to hand. As Albert Manguel put it in his 1996 History of Reading: "Physical ownership becomes at times synonymous with a sense of intellectual apprehension. We come to feel that the books we own are the books we know, as if possession were, in libraries as in courts, nine-tenths of the law; that to glance at the spines of the books we call ours, obediently standing guard along the walls of our room, willing to speak to us and us alone at the mere flick of a page, allows us to say, 'All this is mine,' as if their presence alone fills us with their wisdom, without our actually having to labor through their contents. ...

"Even today, submerged as we are by dozens of editions and thousands of identical copies of the same title, I know that the volume I hold in my hands, that volume and no other, becomes the Book. Annotations, stains, marks of one kind or another, a certain moment and place, characterize that volume as surely as if it were a priceless manuscript. ... The underlying longing, the urge to be, even for a moment, the only one able to call a book 'mine,' is common to more honest men and women than we may be willing to acknowledge."

Alexander Cockburn is a columnist forThe Nation and author of a syndicated column, essays and books. The Times Literary Supplement called him “the most gifted polemicist now writing in English.” To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.