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The man who loved Books too much by Allison Hoover Bartlett



Allison Hoover Bartlett (Riverhead Books)

Library Call No. 002  BAR-M

(Visit the Library to read the book)

Between 1999 and 2003, John Gilkey used dozens of credit card numbers acquired from his department store job to steal more than $100,000 worth of rare books before being caught and sent to jail, partly through the effort of one bookseller named Ken Sanders. When Gilkey and Sanders’s story found its way to the journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett, she came to see it as “not only about a collection of crimes but also about people’s intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous relationship to books.”


Allison Hoover Bartlett’s Web Site

In “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much,” Bartlett uses these two men as a starting point for a series of vignettes in which the love of books turns to madness. Her examples range from the merely eccentric to the sociopathic, from the professor in Nebraska who was forced to sleep on a cot in his kitchen to make room for his 90 tons of books to the 19th-century Spanish monk who strangled one man and stabbed nine others in order to raid their libraries.

Bartlett’s sketches of bibliomania are breezily drawn and often fascinating. If they ultimately fail to cohere into something more, the fault rests at the book’s center, with Gilkey himself. It’s not that his actions aren’t interesting, but that they don’t mean any of the things Bartlett wants them to mean. Time and again she asks “what it was about books that made him continually risk jail time for them.” Yet when we learn that as a boy, Gilkey once emerged from Montgomery Ward with a pilfered catcher’s mitt that didn’t even fit his hand, the riddle is already solved. Gilkey’s earliest experiment with credit card fraud netted him “a watch, a pizza and a poster of the movie ‘Psycho.’ ” His first two trips to jail resulted from his writing bad checks to buy foreign cur­rency and pay off gambling debts. Throughout his interviews with Bartlett, he speaks of “free” air travel, hotel rooms and meals. In other words, Gilkey is not a biblio­maniac whose need for books eventually drives him to steal, but a kleptomaniac whose need to steal eventually drives him to books. As such, he is a difficult figure around which to build a work about “literary obsession.”

There is a related problem with the thief’s antagonist, Ken Sanders, the “rare-book dealer and self-styled sleuth” who helped to track him down. Bartlett seems nearly as puzzled by Sanders’s interest in the crimes as she is by the crimes themselves. But throughout the period of Gilkey’s spree, Sanders was the security chairman of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America; it was his task to protect members from theft and fraud. His performance in that job seems diligent but not especially crazed. Mainly, he sends out e-mail.

That the author recognizes the thematic limits of these men is evident by the attention she gives to her third leading character: herself. Bartlett’s attempts at New Journalistic self-implication aren’t always convincing, but they provide some riveting moments, as when Bartlett and Gilkey tour a bookstore he once victimized while the owner looks on in helpless rage. In this scene, we glimpse Gilkey’s true strangeness, which is only incidentally related to books.

Given the problem at the heart of “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much,” it is a testament to Bartlett’s skill that it reads as well as it does. “Every man must die,” explained that murderous Spanish monk, “but good books must be conserved.” His story and others Bartlett tells really are about “intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous” relationships to books. Gilkey’s story, on the other hand, is mostly about the crimes.

Christopher R. Beha is an editor at Harper’s Magazine and the author of “The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else.”


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Christopher R. Beha is an editor at Harper’s Magazine and the author of “The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else.”



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