The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Allison Hoover Bartlett. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.
Summary: The story of book-thief John Gilkey, “biblio-dick” Ken Sanders whose work resulted in Gilkey’s arrest, and the world of book lovers and rare books.
No, this is not my autobiography! But this book is a fascinating glimpse into the world of rare and antiquarian books and the people who love them. It is also a glimpse into a world of crime, exceeding that of art theft. Most of all, this is the story of two men, Ken Sanders, who, as security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of American (ABAA), notices a strange pattern of book thefts, and through dogged detective work, and the help of a real police detective, succeeds in identifying and bringing to justice a most unusual book thief, John Charles Gilkey. The other intriguing part of this story is the author herself, whose research of this fascinating story brings her in contact with these two unusual men, and the passionate world of rare book lovers.
Ken Sanders is a bookseller in Salt Lake City who ends up as the ABAA security chair. Inheriting a “pink sheet” system of book theft notifications that were only slowly disseminated to other booksellers, he sets up an online system to speed notifications and track thefts. He begins to notice a strange pattern of thefts, mostly on the West Coast of books paid for with stolen credit card information, often picked up by a “friend”, and which no one attempts to re-sell. Through his eyes, and the booksellers he works with, we see what a sense of violation this is, and how threatening this is to their financial bottom lines, as well as their reputations. This fires his persistence, which pays off eventually in the arrest of John Gilkey.
Gilkey is a well-mannered young man with a passion to acquire rare books, and with this, the sense of accomplishment and affluence that a room lined with these books brings. The only problem, and what distinguishes him from other rare-book collectors, is that he cannot afford these books. And so he steals them. He discovers that a retail job with Saks, for which he is well suited as mannerly, soft-spoken, and able to present himself as attentive to the customer, is the perfect place to acquire large numbers of credit card numbers. Bartlett narrates his methods. He often works with his father, researches carefully, only uses a number once, calls from hotel payphones, arranges for a “friend” to pick up the book (sometimes himself under an assumed name, sometimes his father or someone else).
What is most fascinating is how he justifies his thefts. Bartlett writes:
“When he walks into a rare book store and ogles the riches lined up on the shelf, he sees them almost as the personal collection of the store owner. What a wealthy person this is! It is not fair that he charges so much for a single book, Gilkey thinks. Books selling for $10,000 or $40,000 or a half a million–they are all out of his reach. How am I to afford it? he asks with righteous indignation. So he takes what he sees as duly his. That dealers pay a lot for their books, and, with the exception of relatively few lucky or especially savvy ones, barely make ends meet does not occur to him. Even after I brought this to his attention, he chose not to acknowledge his guilt. As he sees it, if he owns fewer rare books than the next collector or dealer, the world is not fair, and, as he put it, he means to ‘even the score'” (pp. 101-102).
At one point Bartlett confronts the ethical conundrum of going with Gilkey to a bookseller who he had previously stolen from as he narrates his methods. Later, she learns of the deep anger of booksellers toward the idea of giving Gilkey this kind of press, which only seems to glorify a thief. And she questions whether her knowledge of his crimes in some ways implicates her as an accessory.
The reader can judge whether she has done this or not and whether she was an accessory after the fact. Bartlett actually sought legal counsel, and her portrayal of Gilkey is of a man who is at once “polite, curious, ambitious” and also”greedy, selfish, criminal.” We see someone who plainly is so warped by a love of books that he has willingly exchanged prison for the chance to pursue his ambitions. Meanwhile, Bartlett also introduces us to booksellers and book-lovers like Thomas Jefferson who in their “gentle madness” end up preserving our history in the great works they sell and collect.