You see it on lists of fun trivia all the time: The Bible is the most stolen book in history. Isn’t it delightfully ironic? Guess those thieves missed the part about “Thou shalt not steal,” right?
It’s a great factoid to bring out at parties, but is it actually true? As it turns out, it’s hard to say.
For starters, we need to acknowledge that, according to the Guinness World Records, the Bible is already the world’s best-selling book, and it’s not a particularly close race. While Guinness admits that hard figures are difficult to nail down, they estimate the Bible’s global circulation at something like 5 billion copies; the second-most circulated book, Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book,” struggles to even crack a billion. Numbers like that make Harry Potter look like a nobody at a few hundred million (via The Telegraph), so it’s likely that the Bible will top even more lists — like, say, the list of most-stolen books — just by virtue of its sheer ubiquity. After all, stuff that’s easy to come across is also easy to steal.
The Bible's questionable status as most-stolen
The question, though, of whether the Bible is really the world’s most-stolen book sort of comes down to whom you believe and how you define “stolen.” Many versions of this factoid that get passed around online add the caveat that “Most [Bibles] are taken from hotel rooms.” The Bibles in hotel rooms are placed by a nonprofit organization called The Gideons, whose goal is to distribute the Bible as widely as possible, free of cost to readers, so they don’t necessarily consider it theft when their Bibles are taken — and they always cheerfully replace them (via Best Western Siesta Key).
If you take “stolen” to mean “shoplifted,” though, that’s a little harder to say. A lot of bookstores — especially big chains — have declined to talk about which of their books get stolen, so there’s no actual definitive list of most-stolen books. Still, informal polls of local bookstores seem to confirm that, even if it’s not the most stolen, the Bible is certainly up there.
Other most-stolen books
Surveys by The New York Times (2009) and the Chicago Tribune (1992) suggest that frequently-stolen books tend to fall into a few main categories: stuff on school reading lists, stuff people are embarrassed to buy (like books about sex), books that appeal to anarchists or nonconformists (such as, appropriately, “Steal This Book”), and books that are easily resold. The Bible falls into the last category — after all, who’s going to say no to a down-on-his-luck guy selling Bibles?
While some of the bookstores that have been surveyed have listed the Bible at the top of their list, including at least one Christian bookstore who insists they’ll happily just give a Bible away to anyone who asks, according to a 1999 New York Times article, the most commonly cited books tend to fall into the “anarchic” category, with most stores giving the number-one spot on the list to beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Another common frequently-pilfered category is art books and coffee table books, which, like the Bible, tend to be easy to resell.
So, yes, it does seem that the Bible is frequently stolen, but usually by people looking to make a buck, as opposed to misguided pious types who think God is cool with stealing. And it’s impossible to know whether it actually tops the list, or whether it’s been bested by stuff like “The Joy of Sex” and “Howl.”
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