Review

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

If you are reading this, you are very likely a bibliophiliac.
What’s that exactly? Well, allow me to explain. Avid book
readers fall into three general categories. The first is the
aforementioned bibliophiliac, those who are defined as people who
love books and gobble them up for the qualities of their
content for the mere joy of reading. We tend to feel anxious if our
bedside table is not stacked with several to-be-read books.
I’ve heard fellow bibliophiliacs joke about marking off their
book stacks with yellow crime scene tape in fear of their toppling
and injuring an innocent passerby. Next are the bibliomaniacs. This
obsessive-compulsive disorder is closely related to hoarding, which
compels its victims to collect books just for the sake of
having them. Reading is not the goal for bibliomaniacs; they just
feel the need to possess them.

John Charles Gilkey is one of a (fortunately rare) class that
falls into a third category called bibliokleptomaniac, one who
possess a pathological disorder that results in the senseless
stealing of books. In Gilkey’s case, it starts with
a desire to own a copy of each book on the “Top 100 Best
Books” list, preferably a signed first edition. Encountering
his prize in his almost daily prowls through rare book haunts ---
perhaps a rare bookstore or fair, a garage sale or Goodwill --- he
pounces. Gilkey’s lust soon exceeds the Top 100 list, and any
rare book is fair game.

Allison Hoover Bartlett, a San Francisco freelance journalist,
learns of Gilkey after a chance meeting with rare bookseller Ken
Sanders, known among his fellow rare booksellers as the
“biblio-dick” --- the book detective. A 400-year-old
book with an uncertain provenance has come into Bartlett’s
possession, and she visits his store to learn more about it and how
such books were circulated. She finds out that a spate of books has
started disappearing from rare book fairs and dozens of rare book
boutiques on the west coast. Sanders tells her that when
booksellers reported the thefts to the police, who had no concept
of the significance or value of an old book, little was done as
they were disinterested in tracking down an elusive petty
thief.

Sanders chairs a committee in the rare books industry whose task
was to track down the huge numbers of stolen rare books and
documents that are filched from members of their association. He
tells her that there were many culprits, but that a man named John
Gilkey stands out as a prime suspect. In the vein of Victor Hugo
and Les Miserables, Sanders becomes Javert to
Gilkey’s Jean Valjean. But in all fairness, Jean Valjean
stole a loaf of bread to feed his family; he didn’t make off
with thousands of rare books and stash them in basements. Sanders
is almost as possessed by the hunger to bring Gilkey to justice as
Gilkey is in stealing books. Nailing Gilkey and finding the
lost books turns into his obsession.

When Bartlett finds Gilkey, he is in jail, doing a short
sentence on a bad check charge. Gilkey, apparently in his vanity,
freely divulged his methods to Bartlett. Completely amoral in his
“collecting,” he was a prime example of unbridled
entitlement. Once out of prison, he leads her to some of his
favorite haunts --- the rare book stalls at book fairs, the
bookstores with the rarest of merchandise, and even to the phalanx
of pay phones where he would order the books on stolen credit card
numbers for later gift wrapping and pickup. No tawdry skulking
about and tucking a book under an overcoat for him. He blithely
wrote bad checks and charged with abandon, all the while convincing
himself that he was actually buying the books. The fact that
there was no money to back up the purchases was brushed aside
because “booksellers are insured” or “those rich
people can afford the occasional hit” on their plastic. He
had his books and everybody won in his twisted mind. Bookstore
owners had insurance, right? Credit card theft is insurable. So who
gets hurt?

His motive? To be admired as a man of culture and erudition. The
accumulation of rare books and impressive titles is to him a sign
that he belonged among gentility --- a position denied to him by
his humble beginnings. The irony is that, in his eyes, his
pages-long rap sheet had no bearing on his self-generated aura of
respectability.  Jail time was merely an opportunity to do
research, to dream up new schemes to “buy” more
books.

THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH does not elevate Gilkey to
anti-hero status. What it does do, however, is lead us into the
strange and wondrous world of literary obsession. Bartlett,
herself a book lover, worried that entering the vast collections of
rare books would expose her to some contagious mania virus she
might contract in the musty, dusty marvels of collectible
books.

Like a mystery unraveling, Bartlett introduces the reader to the
minds of two interesting men playing a real-life game of cat and
mouse.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 6, 2011

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

  • Publication Date: September 17, 2009
  • Genres: Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 1594488916
  • ISBN-13: 9781594488917