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

Allison Hoover Bartlett

(Riverhead; US: Sep 2009)

But Have You Seen My Novels?

A collector of rare or unusual things is himself a curious specimen: a mutant. Regardless of what it is he collects (baseball cards, vinyl records, English crockery) or his putative reasons for doing so (historical interest, monetary gain, love) a collector and his collection cannot be easily distinguished. While the physical properties of each are distinct enough, drawing an unbroken line between their identities proves tricky, as they are conjoined. An attentive collector, by dint of his choice of acquisitions, invariably infuses into his collection some portion of his personality, tastes and intelligence. In turn, the qualities of that collection shine back on their proprietor, redounding to his greater glory or shame.


For some, collecting takes on a consuming importance, one that renders the pastime less a hobby than an organizing principle. The collection becomes not just an extension of one’s self, but in some sense a replacement of it. The critic Walter Benjamin, writing of his own beloved collection, of books, observed within certain collectors a tendency to substitute control over their collections for control over disorders prevalent in their own lives. “You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire books became criminals,” Benjamin wrote. “These are the very areas in which any order is nothing more than a hovering above the abyss.” 


One such member of this latter group of order-seeking individuals is John Charles Gilkey. The subject of journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett’s clever new true-crime book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Gilkey is alleged to have stolen over $100,000 worth of rare and collectible novels over ten years. While book theft is not uncommon, Gilkey is unusual in that his theft appeared motivated not by money (he sold few of his spoils) but rather an overwhelming compulsion to own the books. Intrigued by this level of obsession, Bartlett uses Gilkey’s story as a point of departure for a discursive, essayistic examination of the nature of collecting and the mysterious pull of rare books.


Bartlett’s own interest in collectible manuscripts begins when a friend comes into possession of an obscure 17th century German treatise on botanical medicine. The tome, covered in pigskin, clasped in brass and lavishly illustrated in plant-based dyes, is a repository of bygone history and art, and, being in all likelihood an original copy rather than a newer forgery, exudes what Benjamin would term an “aura” of authenticity. Smitten, Bartlett proceeds to journey into the recondite world of book collectors, visiting book fairs, interviewing dealers, and scrutinizing her own modest collecting habits. She soon hears of Gilkey, who she meets and interviews, first in jail, then after his release, and of Gilkey’s foil and nemesis, Ken Sanders, an antiquarian bookseller who has made a hobby of tracking down book thieves and who was instrumental in Gilkey’s eventual arrest. Bartlett traces the path of these two men and contrasts the root of their passion and the need it fills.


Although Bartlett initially claims that Gilkey stole out of love, her subsequent description suggests an insecure man driven to theft less out of ardor than ego and neurosis. Gilkey, unmarried, uneducated, and unemployed, tells Bartlett that he came to associate book collections with a certain type of man, a fixture of period films set in the Victorian era, most often found seated in a large library, puffing a pipe and looking smart and continental. It becomes clear that Gilkey is possessed by a Gatsby-ish desire to earn, by theft, the impression that he, too, is wealthy, erudite and sophisticated. Tellingly, Gilkey has little interest in reading the books he collects (in prison, he occupies himself with Tom Clancy and James Patterson) and the collection to which he aspires is appropriately impersonal and dilettantish: a complete set of the books on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century.


Gilkey, unsurprisingly, sees little wrong in his crimes, which he defends in populist terms. “[Book dealers] should make books more accessible to people that like them,” he explains. “I mean, how am I supposed to build my collection unless I’m, like, this multimillionaire?” Gilkey, perhaps envious of them, deeply dislikes professional book dealers and relishes his ability to “stick it” to them. In one memorable scene, Gilkey demonstrates for Bartlett his favorite ruse for stealing books, which consists of ordering them over the phone using a swiped credit card number. When one book dealer puts him on hold for too long, Gilkey peevishly declares to Bartlett that, were he still a practicing thief, this particular dealer would be his next target. By the end of the book, the reader suspects that Gilkey stole not out of love, but pique.


While Gilkey is certainly an atypical book collector, Bartlett finds an obsessive strain running through the avocation, and nicely flavors her tale with anecdotes of other eccentric bibliophiles. There is the botany professor from Nebraska who died on a cot in his kitchen surrounded by his 90 tons of literature; the 19th-century Spanish monk whose dedication to rare books ran to murdering rival collectors; and President Thomas Jefferson, who used his own considerable private collection to seed the Library of Congress, with the suggestion that its shelves be organized along three categories—“Memory”, “Reason”, and “Imagination”. Bartlett is at her most eloquent when describing collectors’ intrinsic insatiability: “To a collector, one is never enough, and when a collection is complete, another is imminent, if not already begun.”


Yet, while its subject matter is undeniably compelling, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much suffers from several large structural problems. Although Bartlett takes great care in her account of Gilkey’s misconduct, neither the mechanics of the crimes, nor the specifics of his apprehension are particularly dramatic. And while Sanders is bright and determined, Bartlett’s attempt to paint his efforts at stopping Gilkey, which mostly consist of sending out emails, as the stuff of detective novels unfortunately fails. Bartlett’s ruminations are also hit-and-miss: some yield rewarding comparisons, while others feel extraneous.


More troubling though is Bartlett’s eagerness to step into the morally hairy but dramatically rich condition that transpires when journalists becomes entangled with the people upon which they’re reporting. Bartlett appears to equate getting to know Gilkey with becoming a significant part of his story, which, by my reading, she is not. At one point, Gilkey’s parole agent lets Bartlett know that a concern of hers – that Gilkey might begin to steal books from a public library – was raised at a recent hearing. Bartlett seizes on this as proof of her own centrality to the case. “What I had not anticipated,” she writes, “was that my role would become more complicated. No longer the objective observer, I had stepped into the plot.”


This feels unjustified and, I suspect, spurs Bartlett to digress far too frequently into descriptions of her own reporting. In some cases, journalistic submersion can produce irreplaceably intimates accounts; but it’s easy for a practitioner of it to get in the way of their own story, and Bartlett has a noisome habit of mistaking the commonplace trappings of journalism for vital novelistic detail. Must we be informed that the regulations of San Quentin prison required Bartlett to scribble notes from her first interview with Gilkey in pencil, not pen? Or, that during their second meeting, at a café, Bartlett ordered tea and Gilkey orange juice? And must Bartlett constantly share with us the thoughts that ran through her head during these interviews? Too often, I wanted Bartlett to simply step back and let Gilkey speak. When she does, the book, more often than not, sings.


Bartlett does correctly one way in which she is involved in Gilkey’s life. As Bartlett smartly observes, Gilkey, wise to the fact that much of what the author sees of him will likely appear in print, begins to preen himself for print. As the interviews progress, Gilkey tells Bartlett that he has begun educating himself, launching into a program of writing essays, reading literature, and taking philosophy classes. (He is particular taken with the existentialists: “The way they can’t differentiate between right and wrong. […] Well, I’ve been thinking that could be me.”) His collection denied him, Gilkey, it seems, may be beginning to find a sense of himself outside of the books he owns.


In an afterward, however, Bartlett notes that Gilkey may, instead, be up to his own tricks. Shortly before the book went to print, collector Ken Sanders sent out a message to colleagues warning that Gilkey had stolen again, this time from a dealer in Canada. “It never ends,” writes Bartlett. And, as she herself pointed out, for true collectors, it never will.

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