Updated on May 19, 2015
2. ‘The Man Who Loved Books Too Much’ by Allison Hoover Bartlett
The man who loved books too much – well, I can certainly sympathise with him. Of course, I have never become a professional fraudster and swindled book dealers out of thousands of dollars, just so I can keep my prizes hidden in my house. But that’s exactly what the famous book thief John Gilkey did.
Allison Hoover Bartlett is a journalist, who wrote this book as an account of her experiences in the world of rare book dealing. During her time researching the subject, she found herself in the unusual position of carrying out extended interviews with both Gilkey the thief and one of his victims, Ken Sanders. This gives the book an amazing double perspective: we see the effects of book crimes and the anger they breed, balanced against Gilkey’s unstoppable obsession.
Bartlett doesn’t condemn Gilkey outright. Instead she portrays him as a man obsessed: he knows what he’s doing is technically wrong and he frequently says he plans to stop, but he just can’t. He’s a fascinating character who isn’t above speaking at odds with himself, even in the same sentence. At one moment he’ll swear to stick to the straight and narrow, and the next he’ll reveal his latest plot.
I learned some fascinating things about the rare book trade from this book. There’s the thrill of the hunt (one man talks about how, the moment a book is bought, the thrill is gone and he starts thinking about the next one) and the fact that, often, collectors don’t read their books. In many ways, in this world, books are thought of more as beautiful objects and their contents are less important. For Gilkey the book is a status symbol, some sort of ticket into a wealthier, classier, more important part of society, as he perceives it.
Bartlett readily admits that she loves books and the rare ones she comes into contact with in this story certainly hold a certain magic for her. But, she concludes, she won’t become a collector, because she lacks the compulsion that seems a necessary element of this world. I have to agree with her. I know I collect a ridiculous amount of books, but I don’t chase down rare ones or shell out for expensive editions; I have specific tastes and I intend at least to read every single one.
This is an absolutely intriguing, fast-paced, true story about the world of book collecting and the unstoppable passion that drives both book collector and book thief alike.
“Everywhere he looked were images that confirmed our culture’s reverence not for literature per se, but for an accumulation of books as a sign that you belonged among gentility.”
I’d never heard of this book before ripping off the wrapping paper at Christmas! It was a (very well-chosen) gift from a friend.
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?