The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

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

Author: Allison Hoover Bartlett

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime, book about books

Why Did I Read This Book: I am a bibliophile who can at times see how I could easily slide into bibliomania. People who go to any length to get books – be they rare or commonplace – interest me greatly.

Availability: Published by Riverhead Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This book engrossed me for reasons I did not anticipate when I started reading it. The story of this particular book thief is not as interesting as some other book thieves of whom I have read. John Gilkey, who remains unrepentant concerning his thefts of rare books from dealers, may one day become a man who steals rare books from libraries, as the book indicates he may be doing right now, but his thefts were more prosaic: He stole credit card numbers during his job as a retail clerk and used the stolen numbers to purchase books. He had an element of brazenness about him as he would go into the stores after calling in an order, posing as the “friend” of the purchaser, and pick up the books, but overall, his thefts lacked the sort of derring-do of those who steal from archives and libraries. How he did what he did and how he got caught are not the most interesting parts of this book.

What is interesting, and what Bartlett shows the best, is the world of the book lover, from the rare book shops to those who become obsessed with books and obtain them at all costs. Any lover of books will salivate over Bartlett’s descriptions of what she saw at trade shows, most especially a handwritten manuscript by Proust. She describes a book with a fore-edge painting, something I had not heard of, and it sent me rushing to the Internet so I could see some examples. It’s pure magic, such a thing of beauty. I am not one for whom old or pretty books mean much aside from the content, but I now want such a book. I am not even sure if I can explain why I want it. I just do. I feel like there is nothing I would not give up to be able to afford a book like that and I can give no adequate reason other than that I… I guess I need it? It’s hard to explain how something you did not even know existed can suddenly become a minor obsession.

This book addresses beautifully one of my greatest puzzlements: Why do I love books instead of jewelry or nice cars? Why will I spend whatever I must to get a book I want to read but will never visit a spa or get a manicure. Of course it boils down to personality, but a certain element of it is that books show a lot about me. When you walk into my home, you immediately know what I am about. And that was what prodded John Gilkey into becoming a book thief. He wanted to amass a collection of books that would wow anyone who saw them. He wanted books to define who he is and what makes him special.

Of course, being a thief meant his books could never really be on display (and keeping stolen books close to him was part of his eventual undoing), but the fantasy of people walking into his home and seeing all those old, rare, beautiful books fed the idea of identity that he wanted to share about himself with others. Us book lovers like to believe that we are often above it all in terms of acquisition, because we eschew more common consumer goods in favor of books but the end result is that our loves and desires craft a tangible identity that we convey to others, which is one of the most basic elements of consumerism.

Many matchmaking and social networking sites offer a place for members to list what they’re reading just for this reason: books can reveal a lot about a person. This is particularly true of the collector, for whom the bookshelf is a reflection not just of what he has read but profoundly of what he is: “Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they can live in him; it is he who comes alive in them,” wrote cultural critic Walter Benjamin.

However, Gilkey, while he clearly loves books, really sees books as a means to an end and not something that satisfies a deep longing for the item in question:

…he was not dedicated to one author or one period or one subject. As soon as he’d snagged a twentieth-century American mystery, he was on to a nineteenth-century English novel. He thieved across genres the way a distracted reader might peruse shelves in a library, running his finger along the spines, stopping at whatever caught his eye, then moving on.

I’m sure you can imagine how close to home this description hit for a woman who runs a site called I Read Everything.

Gilkey, however, despite his desire to have books, is not like any collector I was aware of, honorable or not, before reading this book. He often did not know a thing about the books he stole, simply wanting to amass a collection of first edition Modern Library Top 100 Books, going after first editions from authors he had not even read. Moreover, his sense of entitlement is baffling to the average person – Gilkey (and most of us) could not afford the books he wanted, therefore dealers were to blame for having such high prices and there was no harm done if he stole from them. As anyone knows who has ever sold books, from dealers to Amazon Merchants to people who work as clerks in bookstores, the margins in book sales are slim. Razor thin. But much of what Gilkey thinks in this book is not based in reality but rather his attempts to justify his thefts. Assigning a Robin Hood morality to what he did likely helps him sleep at night, or gives him further justification.

But through his thefts, Gilkey really was redefining himself. With an impressive book collection, he could reinvent himself into a gentleman as opposed to the impecunious grifter he is:

…he kept his mind on his collection, imagining how it would elevate his position in society. Gilkey would be regarded as a man of culture and erudition, just like the woman in the wealth management advertisement I had seen who was pictured leaving a rare book shop. Everywhere he looked–movies, television, books, advertisements, clothing catalogs–were images that confirmed our culture’s reverence not for literature, per se, but for an accumulation of books as a sign that you belonged among gentility. Through his collection, Gilkey would occupy a revered place in an envied world.

I have not really ever analyzed my own love of books in terms of what this habit says about me. I have longed to own books I cannot afford, and in a sense, I am very proud of the books I do have that are “rare” or collectible. But like most book collectors and accumulators, I am broke. I am sure there are some top dogs out there whose pocketbooks allow them to own whatever they want but for the most part, every book lover I know is like me – constrained by our bank accounts, and willing to do without most cultural markers of affluence in order to have what may seem to others like a quaint gentility. In my world, books equal being broke.

I loved this book. For people looking for a gripping true crime yarn, this will not fit the bill. It is rather a look at a strange thief and the love of books. And anyone who loves books about books will find themselves making notes of other books to read on the topic – of course I already have Basbanes but Bartlett’s careful research threw a few new names my way. This book is accessible, entertaining, and raises questions in the minds of book people about why they have their particular quirk and what it says about them.