The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett
Some years ago Allison came into possession of a stolen rare book. The brother of a friend left a note before his death that it belonged to a library but he’d never gotten around to returning it. As she began researching the book in her possession, she inadvertently stumbled upon story after story of rare book theft. She continued to be drawn in until she learned about Ken Sanders, the “bibliodick” (book detective), and John Gilkey, the book thief he had worked for years to catch. “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” is the story of Gilkey, and Sanders’ attempt to catch him. Bartlett is able to interview Gilkey while he is in prison, and many more times after he is released. He almost revels in telling her his story, sharing with her about the books he has loved.
Neither Sanders or Gilkey comes across as a very likable person. Sanders is portrayed as both helpful and hard at times, chastising Bartlett for doing something he recommended she do in the first place. As for Gilkey, he is charismatic in his own way, but clearly mentally ill. His sense of entitlement is beyond belief and, for me, made his thefts all the more disturbing. He seems to sincerely believe that he has a right to basically any rare book he wants and that if he cannot afford them, he is completely justified in stealing them. Personally I’m just relieved that it is books he has focused on, or his crimes could be a lot scarier.
Before reading “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” I hadn’t really ever given much thought to the world of rare books. My husband likes to buy old books sometimes, but more because he thinks they look cool on our shelves and their contents are interesting than for any real urge towards collection. I don’t personally quite understand the collector mindset. Everytime I’ve tried to collect something in the past, I’ve gotten bored with it, and I don’t think of books as collectors’ items at all, I want to read them, even if it means they get beat up in my purse or have wet fingerprints on them from being read in the bathroom. That being said, Bartlett really brought the world of rare book collecting to life. I learned an incredible amount about a topic I’d never have thought to study otherwise.
Although at some points “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” seemed to jump around or get a bit repetitive (which I think was partially caused by Gilkey being repetitive in his interviews), it was well-written overall and quite interesting. I was actually very surprised what a quick read it was for what was essentially a very long nonfiction essay. If you’re a booklover (and I’m guessing you are if you’re reading this), I’d recommend that you go ahead and give this a try, if for no other reason than to glimpse inside the world of rare books.
Thank you to Lydia at Riverhead Books for sending me a copy of this book to review.