The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett: B

The Man Who Loved Books Too MuchFrom the back cover:
Unrepentant book thief John Charles Gilkey has stolen a fortune in rare books from around the country. Yet unlike most thieves, who steal for profit, Gilkey steals for love—the love of books. Perhaps equally obsessive, though, is Ken Sanders, the self-appointed “bibliodick” driven to catch him. Sanders, a lifelong rare book collector and dealer turned amateur detective, will stop at nothing to catch the thief plaguing his trade.

In following both of these eccentric characters, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged deep into a world of fanatical book lust and ultimately found herself caught between the many people interested in finding Gilkey’s stolen treasure and the man who wanted to keep it hidden: the thief himself.

With a mixture of suspense, insight, and humor, Bartlett has woven this cat-and-mouse chase into a narrative that not only reveals exactly how Gilkey pulled off his crimes and how Sanders eventually caught him, but also explores the romance of books, the lure to collect them, and the temptation to steal them.

When a man depicted in a nonfiction narrative is described on the back cover as someone “who will stop at nothing to catch the thief” who has been victimizing members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, a reader might be forgiven for expecting some sort of chase. The clever thief. The details of his crimes. The dogged pursuer. The final, satisfying capture. The end.

But that’s not what one gets with The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. I don’t fault author Bartlett for this—she probably had little to do with the way the book was marketed—but it’s rather disappointing all the same. Instead, the book is more a profile of John Gilkey, a mild-mannered guy who used a combination of identity theft and manipulative politeness to steal vast quantities of rare and valuable books. It’s not as if his methods are ingenious, it’s just that he found one that worked and employed it over and over again until enough booksellers finally pooled their information and got him caught. Until he made bail. Then stole again. And was incarcerated again. Then stole again.

The details of some of his crimes are provided, and the scenes of police investigations and sting operations are genuinely fascinating. I liked, too, that Bartlett began to wonder what her responsibilities were regarding some of the information Gilkey had divulged to her, and how much she herself had become a part of the story. Even the fact that Bartlett is more interested in why Gilkey steals than what or how is fine, but after being told for the fourth time that Gilkey steals because he wants a collection others will envy and feels entitled to have it, regardless of whether he can afford it—and how, but for “his crimes and his narcissistic justification of them,” he’s not that different from law-abiding collectors—I began to grow weary.

I admit to some peevishness over the title, as well. Gilkey is not a man who loves books, but a man who loves the status owning an impressive array of recognizable titles will bestow. Granted, that’s a little long for a book title, but as someone who genuinely loves books—for their content!—I am annoyed that someone who merely desires their sheer presence on a shelf gets to make the same claim.

Ultimately, those looking for a detective-style story with a definitive ending will be disappointed. Gilkey is brought to justice for only a fraction of his crimes and shows no intention of stopping any time soon. As the portrait of an obsessed thief with a grudge against those who would keep him from what he believes he deserves, the book is more successful, though somewhat repetitive.


J’s Take on The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much
Allison Hoover Bartlett introduces us to a bookseller on the trail of an unusual book thief, and to the book thief himself. Along the way, she and us her readers learn more about the rare book trade. Though I still find the desire to own a bunch of old books incomprehensible on a gut level.

I can understand it from a bookseller’s point of view. Heck, reading this book makes me want to learn more about rare books so I know how to spot them at library booksales! I’ve been watching a lot of Auction Kings, Pawn Stars, and American Pickers, so I can definitely see the thrill of the hunt. Discovering this expensive little gem in the midst of a bunch of worthless dusty books. That’d be cool. And then, of course, attempting to sell it at a profit. Not that many people get rich in the business..

It’s the collector’s and by extension the thief’s point of view that I can’t quite understand. I want books so I can read them. I want old books because they’re out of print and it’s the only way I can read them. I do like owning books that I like, so I know I have them and can reread them when I want. But I don’t need to own every book I’ve read, or even every book I want to read.

I own books that have been signed, but when it comes to standing in line for autographs, I sometimes wonder why I’m doing it. To have a chat with the author, or to support the author, sure. To then have a signed book I’m reluctant to read and unwilling to sell. Well.. what to do with it?

So.. why own a book that’s signed, or was owned by someone famous, or is just old. What’s so special about a first edition compared to a third or fourth? Especially if there’s no change in the text. Why?

The thief in this book wants to own an impressive library. Well, I have visions of having a large library with one of those rolling ladders. But I don’t need to fill it with books to impress people. I don’t need them to be old books, rare books, expensive books. I want it filled with cool books! Awesome books!

Will my view of this change as I get older? As I have more money to spend? As ebooks take over and print books become extinct? I dunno. Maybe, like the author of this book, I should try buying a rare book and seeing how I feel at buying it and owning it.

I dunno.

Speaking of ebooks, I have one quibble with the author. You are not allowed to disparage ebooks when you use the word ‘ebook’ to mean ‘ereader’. I would’ve even accepted ‘device’.

“Andy and his wife had each bought an e-book shortly before moving to Guadalajara. They were glad they had, since it’s nearly impossible to find books in English there, and the mail system is unreliable.”

Well, I hope they’re slow readers, that’s all! One book each to last them their whole time in Guadalajara.

Though she does then go on to say she thinks the physical books we do keep will have more meaning. And reminisces about books from her childhood and her kids’ books and whatnot. And I don’t know that I have a whole lot of books I have an emotional attachment to, as the physical object. So.. I dunno.

Reading the book made it obvious to me that there is more than one type of booklover. In fact, there may be 2 distinct types. (Or perhaps it’s a spectrum.) The ones who like books primarily for their content. And the ones who like books as objects, of which content is only a part.

Not that I don’t think most manga is pretty. Not that I don’t love the look and feel of the Doctor Who and Torchwood books (over and above the lackluster content). But few publishers are making books I love in that sort of way.

One other thing bugged me. Along about 2/3rds of the way in, she starts foreshadowing how she got all caught up in the thief and faced a moral, ethical, legal dilemma as he revealed more and more about this thieving to her. And the foreshadowing lends you to think that she’ll go to jail, or she’ll testify against him, or he’ll commit suicide, or.. something. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that all that foreshadowing didn’t appear to lead up to anything to me! Maybe it was too subtle for me.

It was rather cool though to see how a book we read here on Triple Take had a great influence on the thief. The book is Booked to Die by John Dunning. This book would’ve reminded me of that book even if it hadn’t been mentioned.

This review is much more about me than about the book, but I’m okay with that! As I said, the book was interesting, and if you’re interested in learning more about the rare book trade or the mind of a thief, definitely you should read it. You can skip Booked to Die though. We all agreed it was mediocre at best.


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

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.

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