What is it that attracts you to a book? Is it the content? The writing style? The cover? Maybe it's the memories conjured up by the book, or the autograph inside, or the year it was printed. For me it's the physical book's journey, its place in time. For John Gilkey, book thief, it was because he believed that owning a collection of rare books would make him a cultured gentleman in the eyes of others. Over a period of years, Gilkey used carefully stolen credit card receipts to acquire a fortune in rare books from sellers all over the country.
Triggered by a chance encounter with a 400-year-old German library book, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett began researching the rare books trade, and was drawn down the rabbit hole (so to speak) into a fascinating world of literature, history, capitalism, obsession, and crime. The result is her 2009 narrative nonfiction book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much -- the story of John Gilkey's addiction, and what it took to catch him. Along the way, she talks with dealers at book fairs and owners of rare book shops, sharing with us the tidbits and anecdotes she learns, like when the dust cover was introduced, how to identify a real first edition, why eBay isn't the best place to buy rare books, why some books are more valuable than others, etc.
In The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Bartlett introduces us to Ken Sanders, a determined book-dealer-turned-detective who provides Bartlett with the background to Gilkey's story. As the Security Chairman for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), Sanders was instrumental in setting up the notification system that was used to identify and eventually capture John Gilkey. Bartlett contacted Gilkey in prison, and, to her surprise, was granted an interview. He was, in fact, eager to tell his side of the story. Over the next two years Bartlett met regularly with Gilkey-both in and out of prison-and tried to discover what makes this man tick. Her interviews with Gilkey reveal just how deluded he is.
As the pace begins to quicken, Bartlett skillfully tells the tale from both points of view. The actions and urgency of Sanders (as well as the other owners and the police) are juxtaposed with Gilkey's thought processes and movements, until Gilkey is cornered.
But the story doesn't end when Gilkey is finally caught. His prison sentence is not lengthy, and he is back on the streets with new ideas about how to "get" the books that he feels he deserves. He continues to meet with Bartlett, and reveals a little more of himself each time. Eventually, Bartlett worries that she has become part of the story. Gilkey knows she is writing a book about him, and he continually speculates about how it should end. As it turns out, the story will continue as long as Gilkey is alive and on parole, and as long as some of the stolen books remain hidden.
Gilkey's case is an interesting one, and Bartlett's introspective style suits the story very well. Most revealing are her discourses on related subjects: the various reasons why people collect rare books; books as historical artifacts; why ebooks will never completely replace hardcover books; what certain books mean to her children; and whether she could succumb to the collecting bug. The narrative is thoroughly researched, with references noted at the end. In fact, reading through the references reveals even more information that didn't quite fit in the story.
Here at the library, we often receive boxes of donations when patrons are cleaning out the homes of elderly relatives who have passed away. Some of the older books have beautiful embossed covers and interesting illustrations. You can be sure that when the next box of donations arrives we will be searching for hidden treasure...!
Recommended by Angela Prandini