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The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession Paperback – October 5, 2010
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“In this great read about the collector’s obsession gone wrong, Ms. Bartlett gives us fascinating glimpses of the rare book world, the criminal mind and the limits of journalistic involvement. Anyone who has trouble passing a used bookstore without going in will love this book.”
—Lynn H. Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa
“Hats off to Allison Bartlett for a splendid contribution to the literature of bibliophilia/bibliomania, the John Gilkey–Ken ‘bibliodick’ Sanders story is one that cried out to be told, and she has accomplished it with style and substance. Very nicely done.”
—Nicholas A. Basbanes, author of A Gentle Madness
“A fascinating journey into a strange, obsessive world where a love for books can sometimes become a fatal attraction.”
—Simon Worrall, author of The Poet and the Murderer
“John Gilkey wanted to own a rich-man’s library in the worst way, and was soon acquiring expensive first editions in the very worst way of all: theft. Allison Hoover Bartlett’s “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” is the enthralling account of a gently mad con artist and his fraudulent credit-card scams, but it’s also a meditation on the urge to collect and a terrific introduction to the close-knit, swashbuckling world of antiquarian book dealers.”
—Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize–winning critic and author of Classics for Pleasure and the memoir An Open Book
“Allison Hoover Bartlett has written a meticulous and fascinating book about a serial bookthief and the persistent sleuth who dogged him for years and finally caught him. It will be especially gripping for those of us who trade in antiquarian books, who owe much to Ken Sanders’s persistence. A fine read.”
—Larry McMurtry, bestselling author of Books: A Memoir and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove
“With its brilliantly observed details, wry humor, and thrilling plot twists, Bartlett’s narrative drew me deep into the obsessive world of a book thief and the dealer determined to stop him. It’s a captivating cat-and-mouse game and a fascinating exploration of why people are so passionate about books. If you liked The Orchid Thief, you’re going to love The Man Who Loved Books Too Much.”
—Julia Flynn Siler, author of The House of Mondavi
“Bartlett’s tale of literary intrigue makes you fall in love with books all over again. From her fascinating descriptions of prized manuscripts to her profile of a man who took an obsession too far, her story will leave you hankering to read more. ”
—Julia Scheeres, author of Jesus Land
“As a rule I approach unsolicited galleys with the same degree of delight that I reserve for root canals. This book surprised me. I read the first paragraph and was drawn in, not so much by the subject matter as by the author's cozy, quiet style, evocative of the work of Dava Sobel and Janet Malcolm. I found the narrative compelling, and I loved the inside stories about old books.”
—Erik Larson, bestselling author of The Devil and the White City
About the Author
Allison Hoover Bartlett's writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and other publications. Her original article on John Gilkey was included in The Best American Crime Reporting 2007.
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This book is the end product of the author's extensive series of interviews with Ken Sanders (a rare book dealer and the "bibliodick" who caught Gilkey), other ABAA members, Gilkey's family, and Gilkey himself. Although the author in no way condones Gilkey's criminal behavior, she is relatively kind to him. She allows Gilkey to explain to readers for himself why he steals rare books, by simply reporting, more or less neutrally, on what he told her in their interviews. (Some of the interviews take place while Gilkey is in prison, some take place in downtown San Francisco after he is released from prison.)
To say that Gilkey "loves books" is perhaps an overstatement. He is fixated on the idea of owning a rare book collection, because of the enormous cachet that such a collection enjoys. A rare book collection, after all, tells the world that the owner is unquestionably a person of refinement and taste. Gilkey not only sees nothing wrong with "getting" rare books from book dealers, he hates spending his own money on books. He has schemes that make it easy for him to get rare books "free", and he likes the fact that rare books appreciate in value. Put simply, Gilkey steals rare books because he wants them, and because he can't afford to buy them.
This book provides an interesting look into the mind of an unusual, specialized kind of thief. It also offers insight into the rarified world of rare book collectors and dealers. It tells a story, is well researched, is well written, and includes just the right amount of detail, so that the reader doesn't lose interest. This rates 4.5 stars, rounded down to 4 stars because the subject matter is limited to the exploits of a single book thief.
As it turns out, there is a book written about Spiegelman (The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman), which I now hope to be able to read.
In addition, the story of Gilkey vs. Sanders is well documented and very well researched. I didn't get the impression that she was glorifying Gilkey at all! I was left with the impression that he's an unbalanced man with no concept of ownership rights. He exists in a fantasy world, where he is entitled to all of his desires at no cost to himself.
Sanders, the dealer who ultimately helps bring Gilkey to justice, (at least for awhile), is presented as a complex man. He is definitely the hero of the book, but he has his own quirks and faults, and these are shown by the author as they occurred in her dealings with the man.
I suspect that those who hated the book are projecting their own frustrations with crime in the rare book trade. Too often the theft of a rare book is unappreciated by police/judges/juries, and the thieves walk away with little or no incentive to mend their ways. While Bartlett addresses this at length, I think booksellers may see any presentation of Gilkey as a betrayal.
As a book lover, I never really was interested in pursuing first editions. However, after reading this book, I'm eager to begin my own collection! I found a website for ABAA member bookstores and even bought my first "rare" book. (A first edition, first printing of "Some Kind of Hero" by James Kirkwood with an inscription by the author!) In my opinion, any book about books that can inspire the reader in this manner is not only good for the trade, but a damn good read in the bargain!