Monday, January 18, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Alison Hoover Bartlett.

This is the story of John Charles Gilkey a man who repeatedly goes to jail for stealing antiquarian books. It is a story of obsession and moral flexibility. Mr. Gilkey loves books to the point where he wants to build a giant collection of them. He believes this will give him prestige and make him into a gentleman of leisure. It is very much in line with him talking about how collected the comic book Richie Rich when he was a child. Gilkey's self delusion is easy to spot.

The story is one which weaves through the antiquarian book world. It follows John Gilkey as he goes in and out of prisons for stealing classics. The methods of the book thief are described in detail, everything from stolen credit card numbers, ebay transactions, wet yarn, and conning people out of their beloved property.

We travel through the world of the antiquarian book fairs and stores mostly in California and New York. John Gilkey's nemesis is Ken Sanders who maintains a database of stolen books from various antiquarian dealers. He has the nickname "bibliodick" for his attempts to hunt down book thieves. The world of antiquarian book dealers is one of extreme love for old books. For some, it is more important to have books in their stores than sell them. There is a word for the most extreme kind of book love, bibliomania.

This book is entertaining. It is a story of out of control compulsions. Gilkey is so obsessed with books that he is often more knowledgable than many of the dealers he steals from.

Threaded throughout the book are anecdotes about the history of book thievery and the antiquarian book trade. There is of course some material on stealing library books and the problems encountered with special collections of books in museums and libraries. A quote aptly describes how many bookstore owners and librarians feel about book thieves.

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner... let him be struck with palsy, & all his members blasted... Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever. -- Anathema in a medieval manuscript from the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona. This is one of the opening quotes in the book.

Much of this book comes from face to face interviews. Alison Hoover Bartlett visits John Gilkey while he is in and out of jail. She goes to Ken Sanders shop. Some of the antiquarian booksellers are upset with her about talking to John Gilkey. There is a set of notes for each chapter. These include numerous references to authors and librarians she has interviewed. There is also an index.

A lot of the antiquarian book world is built on trust. The idea that you can look at, inspect, and have full access to the provenance of a particularly valuable books history. But, like so many objects, it is often hard to authenticate where a book has come from and whether things are authentic. It is also built on love of books. There are very few fortunes made this way.

This book also reveals the place of nostalgia for books in our lives. It does a good job of explaining why we may want to have a book which we owned as a child, or build our own collection of material on a specific interest like poetry, science fiction, or art.

I found this book to be very insightful. It will be of special interest to those who work with books or are bibliophiles. That John Gilkey is caught and many of the books he has stolen are returned to their owners is satisfying.

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