The Man Who Loved Books Too Much
by Allison Hoover Bartlett
I love books, I freely admit that, but I am not a collector. Yes, I keep those that are signed, but I don’t search for rare books or first editions or whatever. I love books for the contents, the stories, ideas, dramas, not to put on my shelf to impress the neighbors. I love the smell of used bookstores and the look of old hardbacks, but I don’t feel that overwhelming need to own them.
Bartlett’s book is about book collectors in general and one specifically – John Charles Gilkey. What makes Gilkey outstanding in the world of collectors is that he doesn’t purchase his books, he steals them, mainly from dealers and libraries. He doesn’t see anything wrong with his actions, believing in some strange twist of logic that it’s his right to steal them, since he can’t afford to purchase them. Bartlett also talks with Ken Sanders, a dealer who spent years tracking and catching book thieves. It is a fascinating world that I knew little about.
As I accumulated information about the thief, the dealer, and the rare book trade, I came to see that this story is not only about a collection of crimes but also about people’s intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous relationship to books. For centuries, refined book lovers and greedy con men have brushed up against one another in the rare book world, so in some ways this story is an ancient one. (pg. 6)
I wanted to adore this book. I didn’t. It was just okay. For me, Bartlett talked too much about herself. She became an active participant in the story, which didn’t feel right to me. I wanted to learn more about Gilkey and others like him, not about Bartlett’s ethical issues that arise when you talk to criminals about their activities. I wanted to understand the people who will give up their freedom in order to have that book, even if they can never show it off. That’s basically what Gilkey did. He was sent to jail multiple times, couldn’t share his collection because it was all stolen, but nonetheless couldn’t stop.
I think the book had great potential. It just didn’t live up to its promise.
Published September 17, 2009
2½ out of 5 stars
I borrowed my copy from the library and the above is my honest opinion.