The Case of the Purloined Pixels: Kindle Klepto Cops Ellis eBook

The man who sat down next to Matthew Barclay on the southbound Q train platform at the Seventh Avenue stop in Park Slope last Saturday around 4:30 a.m. wanted to know what Mr. Barclay had in his hands. The man, whose approximate age was not specified in the police report, had brown eyes, no hair and was wearing tan slacks. Mr. Barclay, 30, had just finished his bartending shift at Bierkraft, a beer bar on Fifth Avenue, and after two post-work drinks was heading home to Argyle Street in Prospect Park South.

“It’s an electronic book,” Mr. Barclay told the man, describing his Amazon Kindle. 

The man studied the Kindle. He looked at the page Mr. Barclay was reading from American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis: “He looks deep into the mirror.”

The man put his hand in his pocket, where he appeared to be concealing a weapon. “You don’t want to see this,” he told Mr. Barclay. “You don’t want to see this,” he repeated.

“It was not clear what he had in there, but I was not interested in finding out,” Mr. Barclay said by phone later. “I was not really willing to hand it over, but he kept threatening me. I don’t know why I didn’t immediately walk away. I guess I was concerned he would grab me or something.”

The man took the Kindle and fled to a northbound train that had just arrived at the station.

“I loved it,” Mr. Barclay said of his Kindle. “It really bummed me out.”

Mr. Barclay was given the reader by his in-laws for his birthday in February. In addition to Mr. Ellis’ 1991 novel, he downloaded works by Edgar Allen Poe, Raymond Chandler and The Collected Stories of H. P. Lovecraft.

An Amazon Kindle representative named, aptly, Kinley Campbell, said that when a Kindle is stolen, Amazon deactivates the device, and its serial number goes on a “block list” so that no one can register it. And, unfortunately for the literary-minded thief, when it is deactivated, it goes dark and the download of American Psycho dies with it.

“I’ve gone back to a real book for the interim because I can’t really afford to replace it right now,” said Mr. Barclay. He is reading The Complete John Silence Stories by Algernon Blackwood. He won’t be finishing American Psycho in a printed edition. “I already bought it in the digital format,” he explained.

The sad conclusion is that if Mr. Barclay was reading the print copy, he would have been less of a target for a subway thief. Ten years ago, he was walking with borrowed books in hand-one of them a volume of interviews with Marcel Duchamp-when four men jumped out of a car, beat him up, took his wallet and left the books. “But there was still sort of this reading theme,” he said. 

On an Amazon discussion forum dedicated to stolen Kindles, users have posted 64 messages. An Amazon customer based in New York named Robert E. Boyce, who, according to his profile, has reviewed products like the Krups Express Egg Cooker, the soundtrack to the film Bell, Book, and Candle and a Skagen men’s titanium watch, wrote, “I love my K2 but it has recently occurred to me that its value reduces its portability. No-one is likely to mug me for a book I am reading in a bus terminal. … In Manhattan, thieves have leaped up and reached through open bus windows to rip chains from the necks of passengers. Kindle lovers should be discrete when using their devices in public.”

Theft may now be the sole way to obtain a Kindle. Kindle 2 is out of stock on Amazon, and Kindle 3, the cheaper model whose production was announced by the company this week, is back-ordered until September.

Mr. Ellis was not available for an interview. But his publicist at Vintage, Sloane Crosley, herself the author of two popular essay collections, both available in Kindle editions, said, “Is it perversely wrong to say that I’m flattered on behalf of my industry? Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Penguin have serious security in the lobby, and there is a part of everyone who works in these buildings that thinks, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if someone really was desperate for early copies of our books?’ Not from a media competition perspective, but from that of a civilian who was just a really avid reader.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Ellis tweeted on Sunday night, at 12:10 a.m., that he was reading Ghostwritten by David Mitchell, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life by Carol Sklenicka and How Did You Get This Number by Ms. Crosley-presumably not on a Kindle, but there is no way to know for sure. Ms. Crosley responded to him over Twitter: “I wish this was a dinner as well as a tweet.”

The Case of the Purloined Pixels: Kindle Klepto Cops Ellis eBook