Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

If I had to reduce him to a sentence, I'd say that Gilkey is a man who believes that the ownership of a vast rare book collection would be the ultimate expression of his identity, that any means of getting it would be fair and right, and that once people could see his collection, they would appreciate the man who had built it. (p. 251)

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (2009) by Allison Hoover Bartlett purports to be the story of John Gilkey, rare book thief, and the man who helped catch him, Ken Sanders (book detective or "bibliodick" as he is dubbed). It is also Bartlett's tour of the world of rare books--the dealers and collectors and supposedly is a peek at what makes them tick. The cover announces that it is "Compelling with elegant suspense." Uh, no. Not compelling. Not the least bit suspenseful. And quite frankly, as a journalist, Bartlett leaves a lot to be desired. She inserts herself into the narrative--accompanying Gilkey on little jaunts to book dealers he has conned, to pay phones he has used in his scams, and generally behaving like a book thief's groupie. One wonders if his book-thieving ways has rubbed off on her--she opens the book by telling us that a rare edition of a 1630s German herbal medicine book has made its way to her desk. She makes an effort to track down the library that it belongs to--but by the time the book ends we don't know what she did with the thing. Last we know it's still on her desk and she's musing "...did not returning it make me a thief? Or was I a thief only as long as I kept it?"

Overall: This book is like a song with a single verse and chorus--played on repeat all day long every day that you read it. Bartlett is looking for what makes a person jump from law-abiding book collector to book thief and repeats this observation on Gilkey's book-lifting habit ad naseum throughout the book:

While many collectors build images of themselves through their collections, most of them do not cross the line between coveting and stealing. It was not just a collection Gilkey was building but an image of himself for the world....The leap between collector and thief is a huge moral and ethical one. {you don't say...}

She appears to think that the reader will see these comments as some sort of stupendous revelation--every. single. time. she makes them. [Most readers should be astute enough to get it the first time. And probably already knew it.] She jumps back and forth between saying that Gilkey is just like other collectors (the more books they get, the more they want) and not--because of that whole "thieving is bad" thing and he's a thief.

I also have a small issue with the title. Gilkey did not really love books. He loved having books that he thought others valued and in some twisted way he thought "owning" them would give him prestige. He felt like he had a right to them and if others had valuable books, then he ought to have valuable books too. He reminds me of the rich man who has a trophy wife. He doesn't actually love her--he loves having a beautiful woman on his arm and considers it to reflect on him--his good taste, his position, he ability as a man. It's all about him--not her. And with Gilkey--it's all about him, not the books. He also seemed to get a bigger thrill out of stealing the books than actually having them.

The best thing about the book is the peek at the world of rare books. More of that would have gone a long way. And I think I would have been much more interested in a book that focused on Ken Sanders and others who hunted down book thieves. ★★ and a half--leaning more towards two than three. 

First Line: At one end of my desk sits a nearly four-hundred-year-old book cloaked in a tan brown sack and a good deal of mystery.

After all, much of the fondness avid readers, and certainly collectors, have for their books is related to the books' physical bodies. As much as they are vessels for stories (and poetry, reference information, etc.), books are historical artifacts and repositories for memories--we like to recall who gave books to us, where we were when we read them, how old we were, and so on. (p. 20)

A book is much more than a delivery vehicle for its contents, and from my perspective, this fair was a concentrated celebration of this fact. (p. 21)

Gilkey has a strong sense of decorum, which comes through on the phone, and a complete lack of guilt about ripping people off, which does not. (p. 106)

Last lines: Not long before this book went to press, Sanders, nominally retired "bibliodick," had nevertheless alerted colleagues of Gilkey's most recent theft: stealing a book from a Canadian dealer. Gilkey was not arrested. The story never ends.


BooksPlease said...

The title caught my eye, but the content sounds a letdown. Strange!

Bev Hankins said...

It really was disappointing. The title caught my eye back in 2013 (when I snagged it a local community book fair), but it didn't live up to expectations.

Christophe said...

Oh well. Thanks for your review of this book with such an attracttive title but--it appears--disappointingly little content.

Debbie Rodgers said...

I read this a few years and remember it just as you described it. Agree with your rating.

Bev Hankins said...

Thanks, Debbie. It definitely wasn't what I was hoping for.

A. Rivera said...

Had this on the TBR list, but was not sure of it. Sounds like something to avoid. Thanks for the review.

Best, and keep on blogging.

Rick Mills said...

Oh, wow. Have this in my TBR pile. Might just have to slide it over to the Challenge Prize Box.