Good artists imitate; great artists steal. In our new series, Stolen, writers share stories of theft.
It was autumn and warm, late evening, and the shadows were as long as the hot busses that hissed and braked alongside the main library’s midwestern utilitarian grim, lifting trails of dead leaves like a breath of smoke in their wake as they rumbled toward the river. I read the dedication in J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, “To My Wife,” before dropping the book in my backpack and unlocking my bike. I found it somewhat cheering. At least this neglected author managed to find someone. But over the decades, many readers—I later learned—had come to debate this. They said he never had a wife. They said he lived alone; he was a librarian; he was sick when he wrote the book, hence the melancholy that colors his prose. Others said it was not prose but poetry, while others insisted it wasn’t nonfiction but a novel. Even certain filmmakers wanted to lay claim to the text. Werner Herzog told a Rio audience to quit film school. If they wanted to make a movie they had only to read one book: The Peregrine. Classic Herzogian hyperbole, I thought, pushing my bike uphill across the dried grass toward the old capital.