The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman

ISBN: 0275993310
ISBN 13: 9780275993313
By: Travis McDade

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About this book

In the spring of 1994, Daniel Spiegelman shinnied up an abandoned book lift in Columbia University's Butler Library, dismantled a wall, stole books, reassembled the wall, and snuck back down the shaft. Over a three-month period he did this more than a dozen times. He eventually escaped to Europe with roughly $1.8 million in rare books, letters and manuscripts. When he was caught in the Netherlands, he tried to avoid extradition to the U.S. by telling the Dutch authorities he was a financier of the Oklahoma City bombing—knowing they wouldn't extradite someone facing the death penalty. Eventually, the FBI got him back to New York, where he finally stood trial for his crimes. Including a retelling of the crimes, dialogue from the court transcripts, and explanations of the legal consequences and intricacies, McDade recounts all the sordid elements of this true crime caper in vivid detail.Four years, four attorneys, one determined librarian, numerous court appearances, and one guilty plea after the initial crime took place, a federal judge in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York meted out a sentence that ran counter to the plea agreement, nearly doubling the ordinary sentence for a crime of that magnitude. In so doing, he created a new justification for departure from Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Basing his decision on the potential harm inflicted on society as a whole by the theft of rare and unique elements of our cultural heritage, Judge Kaplan redefined the value of such rare items and justified his sentencing by determining the value to be beyond the monetary realm. McDade recounts all the sordid elements of this true-crime caper in vivid detail, presenting readers with a retelling of the crimes, dialogue from the court transcripts, and explanations of the legal consequences and intricacies. In addition to the significant, overall legal themes, The Book Thief describes two prison escape attempts, one suicide attempt, a jailed defense lawyer, and the aftermath of this unique and interesting case.

Reader's Thoughts


I enjoyed parts of this book. There is a large chapter on the laws relating to book crimes and the changes to the justice system that Daniel Spiegleman's crimes induced. It is informative, a little boring, and had several grammatical errors.

Mary Ellen

Interesting true story about a man who stole rare books from the library in order to sell them.

John Pinkney

An interesting story over burdened by the legalese and trial transcripts, which are far from compelling stuff to the layman, but must be utterly fascinating to lawyers, which McDade is. Still, the first half of the book (the thefts, the security, the Columbia University MRBL, the selling of stolen goods, etc.) is of interest to rare book lovers anywhere.


So I may be a tad biased as the author is one of my favorite law school classmates; however this is a wonderful read - factually accurate, painstaking legal research and when we hear the author's voice we get wonderful playful moments of artful storytelling.

Kate Irwin-smiler

This is the story of a man who broke into the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library several times and stole an amazing amount of very precious material. He was finally caught, and this book covers his story from a reconstruction of his theft, his apprehension in Europe, through his plea bargain and finally his sentencing. A great deal of the book is devoted to the sentencing phase, in part because Spiegelman's sentence was a deviation from the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The judge received information from scholars and librarians as to the actual scholarly value of the material stolen, in addition to the pure monetary value, and as a result gave Speigelman a harsher sentence than he or his lawyers expected. This book is probably mostly of interest to people who are interested in some legal procedural matters, but I think it's probably accessible to anyone without a legal background. McDade is a lawyer & librarian, and he does a good job explaining the legal and library aspects.


The story of a guy who stole a large number of rare books and manuscripts from Columbia University, written by a librarian/lawyer. He went into way too much legal minutiae for my tastes (lines of argument at the trial, a whole chapter on the history of sentencing guidelines).


I'm not a huge fan of non-fiction (nor all of the legal jargon) but it was really interesting to think about the repercussions Spiegelman's thefts will have on education and how that impacted the judge's decision. Boo Spiegelman!


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