The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (Allison Hoover Bartlett)

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Plot
Over a period of years, John Gilkey targeted rare book dealers, using a combination of schemes to fraudulently acquire valuable books. Though he was caught many times, he always returned to his predations. Ken Sanders, a book dealer who was also security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, was determined to stop him.

My Thoughts
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book going into it. Reading the cover copy, I was primed to expect something akin to a detective story — a true crime, with the reporter/author tracing the steps made by our heroic bookstore owner as he painstakingly pieced together clues and finally managed to discover the identity of the criminal mastermind who was plaguing the industry.

That’s not exactly what we have here. We have the inklings of such a story – author Bartlett gamely attempts to enlighten us as to the background of our criminal, John Gilkey, and the origin of his schemes, whilst simultaneously providing some information about our “detective”, the bookstore owner and organizational security chair, Ken Sanders. But the attempt falls flat. No tension is created. What little chase and intrigue there is is mostly created in the author’s head.

In fact, the supposed detective essentially vanishes from the story for large portions of the book while the author is completely distracted by following Gilkey around and interviewing him, trying to get into his head. She spends an enormous amount of page space musing on the nature of collecting and the psychological attributes of people for whom collecting becomes an obsession. Still more time is spent while she assures herself repeatedly that she has not fallen prey to any obsession to collect books, even though she seems concerned that this desire is somehow communicable, like a disease.

The story would have been considerably better served by completely jettisoning all of this self-insertion Mary Sue wembling and focusing more directly on the store owners. More details about the crimes, more interviews with the clerks and owners — if your book is going to be billed as a detective story, then you actually need to provide that as your main plot thread. Instead, there were times when I was completely lost in the timeline as we jumped back and forth and Gilkey drifted in and out of prison seemingly at random — and without any impact on his life or any of the bookstore owners.

In the end, what I really wanted was more. I wanted to see more clearly what the impact on the owners was. I wanted to follow the development on both sides much more clearly, with lots of dates and specific incidents described ‘as they happened’. I wanted the book outlined in the first paragraph of the jacket flap copy!

Unfortunately, the book book we got didn’t ever manage to transcend its origins as a magazine article, a completely different beast. We got quite a profile of Gilkey, and though I still felt like I didn’t have a firm handle on his character by the end, I can’t fault the author for lack of trying. But the rest of the tale felt bulked up by personal observations and repetitions just to achieve a certain number of words. And I could definitely have done without the final paragraph inserted hastily at the end — because really, it just made it feel like the whole book was pointless. Nothing changed at all!

In Short
While this was an interesting tale, I came away from this book with a sense of let-down. Perhaps because, while this was a book of non-fiction, it was narrative non-fiction — skirting right along the edges of the True Crime genre. It should have told a complete story. Instead, I felt like it had a beginning, but then it just kind of drifted along until things petered out rather than building to any sort of climax. The cover copy leads one to expect an exciting detective story; a chase. There was no such thing to be found here. From remarks in the text it appears that some of this material appeared as a magazine article first, and it definitely has the feel of a feature. It didn’t quite have the heft to carry a book.


3 thoughts on “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (Allison Hoover Bartlett)”

  1. Huh. This definitely wasn’t my take on it at all, and yet I can’t say you’re wrong at any part.

    Maybe I didn’t care about the style/form because I didn’t read the jacket copy. I read a summary of the book when we’re deciding whether to do it or not, and then I tend to mostly forget it by the time we get around to reading the book.

    I’m also not conditioned to detective or true crime stories.

    It did strike me as a little odd she spent years talking to this guy. Who does that?

  2. Well, journalists /do/ do that. But it wasn’t so much the amount of time she spent with him as much as it was the fact that she didn’t seem to get all that much out of him? His crimes were pretty simple as crimes go. Direct. I’m not sure what was revealed over the course of years that wouldn’t have been revealed over the course of a couple of months.

  3. I agree with everything you’ve written, particularly about the lack of tension and how one is led to expect “a true crime, with the reporter/author tracing the steps made by our heroic bookstore owner as he painstakingly pieced together clues and finally managed to discover the identity of the criminal mastermind who was plaguing the industry.”

    Maybe I liked what was actually there more than you did, but I would’ve much preferred the exciting chase as billed.

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