Friday, March 19, 2010

Book Review: 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 is the story of how journalist Allison Bartlett was drawn into the world of rare book trade and discovered a passionate thief and the relentless man who chased him.  John Gilkey is an infamous con artist, but his infatuation is with rare books.  Through a series of interviews, Bartlett comes to understand Gilkey's need to have rare books and the strange way of thinking that drives his thieving.  Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer in Salt Lake City, is a man with equal passion for rare books - and the desire to catch Gilkey.  

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

Things I Liked:

This was a fascinating look at the rare book trade and many of the people who collect rare books.  Through Bartlett's interviews, I became more and more convinced (along with her) that Gilkey had a very skewed sense of justice and rightness.  Many of the comments he made and the idea that he should be able to collect rare books, even if he couldn't afford them, really illustrates the strange way he thinks.  I loved, however, just how dedicated and passionate all the rare book dealers she spoke with were - how Gilkey was a lot like them, but was unable to see how he obtained his books as wrong.  I had lots of passages marked in the book - both about books and collecting and about Gilkey.  Here are just a few I loved:
"For several days I lived in Wilbur's world, and the only thing as sad as Charlotte's death, maybe even sadder, was that I had come to the end of the book.  I valued that half-dream state of being lost in a book so much that I limited the number of pages I let myself read each day in order to put off the inevitable end, my banishment from that world.  I still do this.  It doesn't make sense, though, because the pleasure of that world does not really end for good.  You can always start over on page one - and you can remember." p 20-21
"It's a very frustrating thing for me, because I just want to check out a bunch of those first-edition books at the library, just out of curiosity, and they were missing." 
Just out of curiosity?  Did he consider me a fool?
"Have you ever taken a book from the library?" I asked.
Gilkey looked incredulous.  "No," he said.  "That would be stealing." p 181
"Physical artifacts carry memory and meaning, and this is as true of important historical texts as it is of cherished childhood books.  Sitting in any library, surrounded by high shelves of books, I sense the profoundly rich history of scholarship as something real, and it's both humbling and inspiring.  This manifestation of reality is true of other artifacts as well.  We can read about the Holocaust or where Emily Dickinson wrote her "letter to the world" or where Jim Morrison is buried.  We can view online photos of all these places.  Still, each year, thousands of people visit Auschwitz, The Homestead, and Pere Lachaise.  I suppose our desire to be near books rises from a similar impulse; they root us in something larger than ourselves, something real.  For this reason, I am sure that hardbound books will survive, even long after e-books become popular." p 217
"Often, when I told people his story, they would say, How sad.  Here was a man who seemingly could not help himself from the very act that would put him in prison.  I came to disagree.  Such single-minded wanting is a lot like never-satisfied lust, a dream that won't die, and working toward achieving it can give tremendous pleasure.  While Gilkey told me he was depressed in prison and said he would never want to go back, I began to see his "frequent flyer" status (as one prison official referred to it ) as perhaps he saw it: the price he had to pay.  Some pay for their success with soaring blood pressure or dissolved marriages.  He paid with jail time." p 246-247
Things I Didn't Like:
Sometimes I wondered where exactly the story was going.  It doesn't really have much of a progressive action or a complete ending.  But, it doesn't really need one either.  


Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone
A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books
by Nicholas A. Basbanes

s-factor: !@
some throughout

mrg-factor: X
some interesting metaphors with reading

v-factor: none

Overall rating: ****

Do you enjoy books about books?  Feel free to share your favorites.

If you buy through my Amazon linkage, I will get a very small percentage


  1. I bought this one awhile ago and still haven't read it. I really need to. Sounds like it's a good one!

  2. John Baxter's memoir, "A Pound of Paper", also offers an intirguing insight into the world of book collectors

  3. I keep meaning to pick this one up-- it looks so interesting!

  4. I've seen this several places. I think I really should add it to my list.

  5. Susan, it's very fun!

    Andie, I've never heard of that one - I'll have to check it out sometime.

    Britt, it is very interesting.

    carolsnotebook, definitely worth reading.

  6. I always think that I like books about books more than I do when it comes to actually reading them...but maybe I just haven't found the right one.

  7. Caroline, I haven't read a lot of them, but I found this one to be interesting :)

  8. Hmm. Sounds interesting. I've seen it a couple of times but have never actually bought it.

    Books about books? The Thirteenth Tale was really good. Possession, by A.S. Byatt, but I guess that's more about writers and letters. Still, it's a good one.

  9. pickygirl, hopefully you will try it sometime. I have a copy of Thirteenth Tale, just haven't gotten to it! I had forgotten it was about books.


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