"The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting" (Penguin), by Rachel Shteir: The opening chapter of Rachel Shteir's study of shoplifting allows us to vicariously watch the surveillance video of Winona Ryder at a Saks Fifth Avenue store in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2001. But this is no tabloid study banking on our collective schadenfreude, nor a superficial treatment of bad things people do. Shteir has written a sharp, smart and thoroughly entertaining cultural history.
That Shteir's work is impeccably researched should come as no surprise to those who have read her previous work on striptease, and she brings the same dedication and keen insights to shoplifting.
Alongside a rundown of various laws passed and famous trials (such as, for example, that of Jane Austen's aunt — really!), Shteir looks at popular culture's treatment of the shoplifter, from Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders to characters in contemporary novels by Myla Goldberg and Kathryn Harrison. She also provides personal testimony from shoplifters who remember the thrill of sneaking an extra piece of candy from the corner drugstore to those who were — or still are — involved in black-market rings, reselling boosted items for massive profits.
Shteir discusses shoplifting as a crime, once punishable by hanging; as a disease, diagnosed mainly among the wealthy as need was not considered a factor; and as a political protest, largely represented by Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book," traces of which may still be found in the Freegan movement.
What makes this a standout work of nonfiction isn't just that it's the first serious study of an act that under certain circumstances may seem harmless or justified (as in stealing a loaf of bread in "Les Miserables"), but costs retailers billions of dollars a year — not to mention the price that individuals pay, literally, in "crime tax" cost markups. It's also that Shteir's approach is elegantly constructed as she breaks down the ways in which shoplifting is gendered, classed and racialized — in other words, the way we look at, prosecute and treat shoplifting has everything to say about who we are as a society.