Monday, September 14, 2009

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett - 288 pages

Book CoverMeet John Charles Gilkey. Gilkey is a rare book thief. Obsessed by the quest to obtain rare and valuable literature, Gilkey toils at great length to devise schemes that will net him free books. Gilkey spends much of his time researching both the books and the shops and fairs they will be liberated from, and perfecting his distressing schemes. Beginning with amateur attempts at passing bad checks and eventually engaging in voracious credit card fraud, Gilkey's passion for books is only surpassed by his belief that he should receive these books at no charge to himself.

Reporter Allison Bartlett is interested in documenting Gilkey's story, as well as the story of Ken Sanders, the "bibliodick" who has made it his job to catch thieves of this nature. Allison, having conducted numerous interviews with both the thief and the detective, begins to piece together the story of Gilkey and his exploits, as well as the story of Sanders, the man who always seems to be one step behind him. As Bartlett investigates the two men, she becomes embroiled in the heady world of book collecting and collectors, and sheds light on both the people who make their living selling the rarest of books and the people that will apparently stop at nothing to get them. A book about the love of books taken to the extreme, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is at once an outrageous and unbelievable story about one of the most appalling thieves you are likely to ever come across.

This was a sensational read in every aspect of the word. Reading about Gilkey and his literary transgressions was at times frustrating but was also very beguiling. I found Gilkey to be a ridiculously unrepentant thief, and the brazenness of his crimes caused me to have several jaw-dropping moments. He seemed an unlikely criminal, one whose charm and politeness belied his true intentions. When Bartlett begins meeting with Gilkey in an effort to better understand his motivations and compulsions, she, too, is fooled by his seemingly placid nature and overt good manners. It is only when Ken Sanders, the book detective, begins to weigh in that Bartlett begins to discover that Gilkey is in fact a profligate thief, so cocky and emboldened that he thinks nothing about stealing from the same sources time and time again, even after being convicted and sentenced to prison.

It was amazing for me to discover that Gilkey had stolen hundreds of rare books worth several thousand dollars and that most of the time he got away with it. It seemed that luck was mostly on his side, and when it wasn't, he had a way of absurdly justifying his crimes to himself that left no feelings of guilt in his mind. The most interesting aspect of this book was the in-depth look into Gilkey's behavior and background. Through the interviews Bartlett conducts, Gilkey is revealed as a man with an extremely questionable family life and very flexible morals. He doesn't seem to have a filter between wrong and right and appears almost dim-witted, which is why I found it surprising that he had been so successful as a rare book thief. At one point, Gilkey is talking with Bartlett about his plans for the future, and he mentions the idea that each person in America should send him one book, to keep him from thievery. I couldn't help but laugh out loud at his absurdity because his comment was made with total sincerity. That is the type of person he is: comically short sighted and morally underfunded. At times I really wanted to throttle him, for he never seemed to understand the basic premise that stealing books is wrong and something that most people just don't do. Instead he had an overblown sense of entitlement and felt that he was somehow owed these rare books.

I found it oddly humorous that towards the middle section of the book, Bartlett manages to become so enmeshed with his story that she questions weather she herself may be thought of as an accomplice to his strange schemes, and wonders just how she might disentangle herself from him. This book had a great cat and mouse quality, and the more I read about Gilkey and his nemesis Sanders, the more I got caught up in the web of this tale. Though Sanders comes off as a bit standoffish, he shows an amazing tenacity in his job as head of the security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, and does everything in his power to make sure that Gilkey and thieves of his ilk are caught and prosecuted for their crimes. Sanders takes Gilkey's attacks as a personal affront, and like most of the dealers who have been victims of theft, he is dogged in his pursuit of retribution.

I really loved reading about all the aspects of book procurement and collecting that this novel explored. Aside from it being a story about one man's theft of rare books, it also highlighted a great deal about the love of obscure books and delved into the haunts one might frequent when going in search of these treasures. It was quite easy for me to personally relate to the collectors. They all shared a sense of wonder and fervor over books that they wished to possess, and it was wonderful to see the sense of awe that they got when something really rare came into their sights. Although I enjoyed reading about Gilkey and his drive to steal books, I found myself more enthralled with the information about the collectors and their quarry.

I had never imagined coming across as aggravating a thief as John Gilkey, and I thought that this book deftly explored both the man and his crimes in great detail. The story was both humorous and at times troubling, but nevertheless I had a great time with it. If you are a book lover, you will surely love this exceptionally told story. It was a fast paced and extremely unique look at the world of book lovers everywhere, and a telling portrait of a very afflicted man. A great read, highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


Steph said...

I saw this book sitting on the shelf at work, and I hope it's still there when it comes to cull those shelves as I REALLY want to read it, now even more so based on your review! It definitely sounds like one of those non-fiction reads that won't be dry and leave the taste of sawdust in your mouth!

bermudaonion said...

When I read about the premise of this book I thought it would be really good or really bad. I'm glad to see it's good. Thanks for the review.

Elizabeth said...

Boy, this sounds fascinating. I certainly don't condone stealing, but I mean, it's BOOKS! I really want to read this one!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Zibilee...great review. I have this one too!

I am going NUTS trying to keep up with google reader during BBAW. I had over 350 posts this am :)

Have a good week.

Marie Cloutier said...

Sounds awesome! :-) It's definitely possible to love something too much!

Suko said...

What a great book to review during BBAW! This sounds very intriguing. Perhaps it should be required reading for every book blogger!

I'm adding you to my blogroll. : )

Aarti said...

Thanks so much for nudging me to read Bridge of Birds. I loved it! Must find the sequels now :-)

Hope all with you is well- will catch up soon!

Lenore Appelhans said...

I like to devise elaborate schemes to get free books too - like maintaining a book blog ;)

Krista said...

Your review captured everything that was fascinating about this book. I second your recommendation!

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