A Journalist's Archive

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much
Allison Hoover Bartlett
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

John Gilkey has an obsessive/compulsive disorder. But unlike those who must constantly wash their hands, or arrange silverware and plates just so, Gilkey’s illness doesn’t warrant an iota of sympathy. He is not a victim. Instead his compulsive need to own rare manuscripts, and signed first-edition books, creates victims of book dealers across the country who pay for his habit. For “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much,” is nothing more than a despicable thief, who just happens to be obsessed with extraordinarily expensive books.

If this book were fictional, perhaps my blood pressure wouldn’t have shot into the stratosphere while reading it. Unfortunately, it’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Author Allison Hoover Bartlett follows Gilkey’s movements as he “acquires” his booty. Along the way she encounters Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer turned “bibliodick,” whose mission in life is to track down Gilkey and put him behind bars. In between the action, Bartlett explores the world of book collecting.

She borrows a 400 hundred year old book from a friend in an attempt to understand what causes a sane person to spend thousands of dollars on books they may never even read. Furthermore, what drives people such as Gilkey to steal them? As she holds “Kräutterbuch,” meaning “Plant Book” in English, she discovers it won’t be easy to return. “Its cover, oak boards clad in pigskin, is slick but textured with embossed concentric patterns of flowers and leaves… its aroma is unique, unlike the books in my grandparent’s attic.” Despite not being able to read the German and Latin writing, Bartlett knows she is holding a work of art, a piece of history, an object that cannot be replaced. And it’s a safe bet she’ll use some of the proceeds from “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much,” to buy something similar to “Kräutterbuch.”

Or at least Bartlett should, because she’s earned it. The book’s subject matter is unique; and her writing skills are superb. She had to carefully navigate a fine line between “getting the story” and becoming an accomplice to Gilkey’s illicit acts. Encouaging a criminal to tell his tale isn’t easy, or accomplished without risks.

Authors also have to guard against being sucked into their subject’s “boohoo” fabrications. Bartlett seemed to slip once, but quickly realized her mistake. “The surface charm of a con man, like most enchantments, is a form of manipulation, and behind the façade stood a sturdy buttress of greed,” she writes. That certainly describes Gilkey – con man indeed! Here are some of his justifications for stealing. It wasn’t “fair” that he couldn’t afford the books he wanted. Besides, book dealers pick these things up at thrift shops, garage sales, and from private parties whom they may not compensate properly. So in his warped mind it’s the dealers who are at fault, and Gilkey is just a bibliophile Robin Hood. Except that his redistribution of wealth plan ends with him.

In addition, Gilkey reasons that if he can get books for free, he will make 100% profit when he sells them. Now there’s a business plan!

Most infuriating of all, people such as Gilkey steal books with impunity because law enforcement agencies consider it a non-violent crime that causes little harm. Police officers often express shock at the value of rare books, and amusement that anyone would pay that price, but they make little effort to apprehend the culprits. Luckily, Sanders stepped in to do the job. His only other alternative was to allow thieves to destroy his business.

If Gilkey stuck to shoplifting items at book fairs, he might not have spent a day in jail. Instead, he specifically sought employment at Saks and Macy’s to gain access to credit card information from “wealthy customers.” He saved the numbers for months, so when he did purchase rare books on someone else’s dime, it was difficult to trace where or when the data was stolen.  Upon receiving their bill, cardholders only needed to call their credit card company to resolve the issue, leaving book sellers to take the loss.

However, law enforcement frowned upon credit card fraud, especially after Sanders proved Gilkey’s obsession was actually a nationwide crime spree. In fact, Sanders wrapped the investigation in a bow for police, by tracking down the address where Gilkey hid his ill- gotten gains.

Still, “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” sure doesn’t have a happy ending. Find out what happens to most of Gilkey’s stolen collection, as you dive into the world of bibliomania. See if you find yourself asking the same question I did. Can the desire to possess an object – even if you have to steal it – actually be called “love?”

It’s questionable. However, I can’t blame Bartlett for using such a catchy title, especially for a book so worth reading.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2010 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
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