‘The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting’

James Camp

‘The Steal’ by Rachel Shteir

Shoplifters may be the only criminals for whom the nightmare of getting caught ends with a blush. The anxiety isn’t that shoplifting is illegal, exactly. It’s that it is not illegal enough. The fleur de mal looks embarrassingly like a daisy. “Stealing household trinkets remains too shameful for words […],” writes Rachel Shteir in The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (Penguin Press HC, 272 pages, $25.95). “The silent epidemic grows in a medium of silence” [214]. Authorities place the number of American shoplifters at around 30 million, which makes them roughly as pervasive as American depressives. And yet, with the exception of celebrity offenders, we never hear about them. Shoplifting is the epidemic that dares not speak its name.

That is one way of putting it. Yet it is misleading. The epidemic may be silent, but it would be inaccurate to put this down to the reticence of its culprits. “I met shoplifters by placing ads on Craigslist […],” Ms. Shteir writes. “Some shoplifters I literally met at dinner parties or while interviewing people at Starbucks.” It turns out that all you have to do is ask. The problem isn’t that shoplifters have been too inhibited to speak. It’s that, until now, no one could be bothered to listen.

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