In thinking about true crimes of passion I could relate to, the title of this book most definitely caught my eye!
John Gilkey’s claim to fame as a career criminal was not how much he stole but what he stole: rare books, mostly. Why specialize in stealing rare books? Writer Allison Hoover Bartlett wanted to find out and by following his story provides a look not only into the motivations behind his crimes but also into the world of legitimate rare book collectors, stories of other book thieves, and the story of the man who tracked Gilkey down, Utah antique book dealer Ken Sanders.
For the most part, I enjoyed this book, though the title is a bit misleading. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much sounds like the story of a good book lover gone bad, but that’s not really the case with Gilkey, who rarely read the books he stole. Gilkey is an odd duck, for sure, and Bartlett became quite familiar with him as she spent roughly 3 years interviewing him, both inside and outside of prison. As a result, she develops pretty good insight into his motivations, and I actually found some of the most compelling moments the ones where she just recorded his uncensored thoughts on why he steals and his own twisted justifications for it. They’re psychologically fascinating while also managing to be quite unsettling and repellent.
Gilkey’s archnemesis Ken Sanders also made for an intriguing, though unlikely, detective. He accidentally found himself tasked with handling security for a national antique booksellers organization and quickly determined that Gilkey’s bizarre crime spree was the result of one man.
Also interesting are the other stories about book theft, many of which probably fit the title of the book more than Gilkey’s crime, and the look at the culture of book collecting. I own a lot of books, though not as many as the guy Bartlett talks about who had 90 tons of books. Not gonna lie, I was kind of jealous of him, but I really don’t think I am cut out to be a book collector. From reading about this world of people obsessed with first editions, I realize that I just really want books that I want to read and have no vested interest in what edition I get, provided it is not abridged or significantly altered. But I still was impressed, as was Bartlett, with the knowledge that book collectors have, especially in regard to knowing what constitutes a fake. The discussion regarding forces that have complicated the world of antique bookselling, namely ebay, was also intriguing.
The only thing that I disliked about the book–and this is indicative of a trend in nonfiction writing that has become prevalent in the past several years and almost always irritates me–is the parts where Bartlett inserts herself into the story. I realize that writing a story that is heavily dependent on interviews inevitably leads to a more complex relationship with sources than one has with a historical text. And I actually am interested in how journalists interact with their sources and the impact that has on their work. It’s not really the fact that modern non-fiction writers insert themselves into the story so much as how they do it that frequently irritates me, and the way Bartlett did it bothered me.
My problem with Bartlett’s approach spanned multiple issues.
For starters, Bartlett often inserted her own meditations on the subject into her text. Sometimes they were interesting, but other times they seemed a bit random and disconnected from the actual meat of the story, especially when she spends lots of times wondering about Gilkey’s and Sanders’s own motivations, which are actually pretty straightforward and presented early in the text.
But even more problematic to me was Bartlett’s actions when Gilkey, after gaining her confidence, starts to draw her into his world. Granted, at first, this actually was some of the more fascinating parts of the story as he visits past crime scenes with her and demonstrates how he would steal books while not actually doing it. But it quickly leads to him confiding previously unknown crimes to her.
What I found objectionable was Bartlett’s reaction to this information and, more specifically, how she ends up justifying her own actions. I realize that as a journalist, she is put in a difficult ethical conundrum by interviewing a criminal and worrying how complicit she is in sharing this knowledge with him. However, I found her explanations for her actions, which rely on half-hearted justifications and a lot of emphatic evoking of the legal opinions of friends who are attorneys, as lame and as convoluted as Gilkey’s own reasoning for his crimes, though decidedly less interesting. I think her actions would have bothered me less if she had just taken more responsibility for her own decision-making and also been more honest in expanding on the ethical dilemma in which she found herself. I think that would have been a much more thought-provoking approach to the topic than what she ultimately chose to do.
That being said, overall, I did enjoy the book. I’d actually be interested in comparing notes with anyone else who read it, specifically if the things that bothered me bothered you. As always, if you’re interested in this book, please follow the link to our online library catalog.
Recommended for those who enjoyed Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief.
Have you read this book? How many books do you own? Do you own any first editions? Are you a book thief yourself? Tell us in the comments (but please don’t confide any unsolved book heists to us)!